@Info.Policy: DHS: no magic bullet for security

Robert Gellman

Last December, the Markle Foundation of New York advocated a trusted information network to improve our homeland security. The foundation brought together a balanced, high-level task force to prepare a report that's worth a look, at www.markle.org.

The findings can be summarized in one sentence: We can do better at combating terrorism by starting with existing technology to analyze and share information, while protecting privacy and other civil liberties. That sounds good, doesn't it?

It's probably right, too. The report makes a case for more effective use of information by existing agencies. It argues that the Cold War need-to-know mentality is obsolete, and agencies need to cooperate to get the right information to the right decision-makers at the right time.

Too many agencies without clearly defined responsibilities are pursuing their own agendas rather than working toward joint goals. That last sentence probably applies to every multiagency activity in Washington.

It's encouraging that the report does not automatically assume that centralizing personal data is the right answer. That was one theory behind John Poindexter's late and unlamented Total Information Awareness program. Markle understood what Poindexter didn't, namely that much private-sector data is of poor quality.

The private sector doesn't have to care about data accuracy or timeliness when the goal is a 2 percent response from a catalog mailing. It's a different story, however, for screening airline passengers.

Markle wants government to demonstrate that such personal information is truly useful and then process it to minimize effects on privacy. That means leaving data in private-sector hands rather than building government databases. Another approach is to do more'but not all'analysis using nonidentifiable data.

How to proceed? Markle says we need to break down institutional barriers to cooperation through presidential leadership. Now, I am not making a political comment on the current administration, but what are the real prospects here? Many government problems could be addressed effectively through interagency cooperation and more leadership from the president.

Let's be polite and just say that leadership and cooperation are in short supply and have been for a long time. Neither Congress nor the public rewards politicians or agencies for doing the work that Markle sets out. Presidents pay attention to grand visions and politics. Agency heads serve for a couple of years and leave. Incentives are few for leadership and cooperation on nuts-and-bolts matters out of the public eye.

The Homeland Security Department was supposed to fix some of these problems. But DHS will take years to integrate its own activities, let alone play well with others. DHS illustrates the political magic-bullet approach. The president and Congress, buffeted by political pressures, decided that creating DHS was the magic bullet to solve many problems. All it did was move responsibility away from elected officials.

So, did Markle waste its time? No, but I don't think anyone should have any illusions about the prospects for real improvement or useful change.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at
rgellman@netacc.net.

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