By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 13, 2006
Three trucks, carrying hundreds of copies of the president's proposed federal budget, left the Government Printing Office one morning early last month and headed for House and Senate office buildings. For several days, about 100 GPO employees had worked to print the 352-page document and 2,000 pages of accompanying material.
Distributing the budget plan -- a total of 8,500 copies of it -- is one of the biggest events of the year for the printing office, but it is also becoming something of an anachronism for the 192-year-old organization.
For most of U.S. history, any government agency that needed to print many copies of a document went to the GPO. Now, about half of government documents go straight online, forcing the printing agency to find new ways to make itself relevant in an increasingly paperless world. But questions of security, privacy and authenticity have confronted the GPO leadership as it has sought to get up to date in the digital age.
"We are determined that we are going to put every single [government] document on the Web," said GPO chief Bruce R. James, the nation's public printer.
Inside the GPO's 1.5 million-square-foot headquarters across from Union Station, scratched floors, paint-peeled walls and pockets of empty space suggest a warehouse of a bygone era -- not quite the industrial character of 1860 when Congress acquired the site, but certainly not the cutting-edge design of a modern enterprise.
But then, there are signs of change.
Steve LeBlanc, operations manager of the new security and intelligent documents unit, showcases a nearly $1 million printing press called the Heidelberg Speedmaster that can print 13,000 sheets per hour in full color.
Ted Priebe, assistant chief of staff for digital conversion services, oversees the conversion of government documents into digital media that can be accessed for decades to come.
Elsewhere, Lisa LaPlant, a program manager in authentication initiatives, demonstrates how the printing office is trying to tag digital government documents -- in "portable document format"-- so users will know that the documents have not been altered.
The initiatives are part of two projects James launched to refocus the agency on 21st-century challenges after taking the GPO post in late 2002: the Future Digital System; and the secure and intelligent documents unit.
"We had absolutely no technical knowledge with the exception of one or two really insightful youngsters," he said.
Americans wanted to search for information on the Web and did not want to pay for printed versions of government documents. Seventeen thousand people, for example, paid to receive the Congressional Record in 1995, a number that was quickly shrinking by 2002 and now stands at less than 2,000. A quarter of a million pages are retrieved from it online in a month.
The Future Digital System will respond to that trend by making available online all 2.2 million government documents -- a total of 60 million pages -- by the end of the 2007, tagged by keywords so they can be easily searched. It is a nearly $30 million endeavor and will include documents all the way back to the nation's founding.
The secure and intelligent documents unit is working to ensure that digital documents are certified as authentic and that important documents are extremely difficult to counterfeit, something that has posed more of a problem as technologies have emerged to assist counterfeiters.
If you order a document directly from GPO, and "the brown envelope with a GPO stamp comes to your door," you can be sure it is authentic, James said. But with digital documents, "you have no way of knowing that what you receive is what the author wrote."
The GPO's boldest ongoing project is not happening at headquarters. It is happening somewhere nearby, in an undisclosed location, where a new U.S. passport is being developed.
The State Department asked the GPO to create the new passport as part of an effort to further secure entry points into the United States. The new passport will include advanced anti-counterfeiting markings and a computer chip and antenna built into the cover. That will allow a border agent to slide the passport over an electronic reader that will display the passport holder's information on a monitor.
Privacy advocates raised concerns almost as soon as the new passport was announced in early 2004. The concerns focused on the chip and antenna, a technology known as radio frequency identification (RFID), which advocates fear could be scanned by identity thieves and other criminals.
"The big issue with the RFID passport is the tag or chip will contain the same personal information as is available in human readable form in the passport," said Lee Tien, a senior staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We think there's a real privacy issue to having the U.S. government requiring anyone traveling internationally to carry this kind of information [which] could be checked surreptitiously."
Frank E. Moss, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs, said the passport is being tested again by an independent government agency before final certification, and that "the front cover contains anti-skimming materials as long as the book is closed or mostly closed." Distribution is planned for this summer.
At the center of this debate is the GPO, which is responsible for contracting with a chip vendor and assembling the passport book. James said that finding a vendor has included challenges. Similar issues may come up with new uniform government IDs, which also have internal RFID chips. A report by the Government Accountability Office raised questions about whether agencies preparing to implement the new ID would be able to by this fall because of technological and other limitations.
James eventually would like to move GPO from its North Capitol Street home "into a new facility designed and equipped for the 21st century." Congress is likely to slow that effort.
To Michael F. DiMario, a 30-year veteran of the printing office whom James replaced, this all sounds familiar. "We were under a very high demand from the Congress for many years to shrink the agency," he said. "The goal of Congress was not to build IT departments."