Beware bad GovNews

I'm talking about the GovNews section of the UseNet. Like-minded individuals have been
exchanging data and holding diatribes for years via UseNet. It encompasses more than
20,000 interest groups, including 200 government groups. Plans now are under way for a
newsgroup to carry Federal Register posts, with filters to prevent spam postings.


The GovNews section offers an effective and relatively cheap way for agencies to
exchange information with one another and the public, as Walter R. Houser explains in his
View from Inside column on the next page. But agencies should use GovNews with extreme
caution, especially in light of recent hacker attacks on federal World Wide Web sites.
Those who wish the government ill could use GovNews sites in more subtle and insidious
ways than Web site hackers.


The other night, I checked a site where hacked government pages are preserved-for
historical purposes, a statement on the site said-alongside the originals. The hacked
sites are quite funny and sport links to all sorts of unlikely and irrelevant places.


I'm not making light of unauthorized alterations of Web sites. Computer hacking at its
most innocuous is as bad as spray painting a building or a city bus. Even when the damage
is small, it's nasty and uncivil. But the Justice Department's recently hacked home page,
for example, couldn't be taken as anything but a joke. The hackers did not have a subtle
sense of humor.


The mainly text-only, open-posting nature of UseNet makes it possible for all sorts of
half-truths and lies to get mixed in with legitimate news. Although it's possible for a
UseNet gov. site to be read-only, the spirit behind GovNews is to encourage a
dialogue. Automatic filters will be less effective if postings aren't limited to .gov
mail origins.


Even so, a good hacker can spoof the origin of his or her posting. Moreover, given the
size and spotty internal communications of many agencies, even the best moderators might
not catch every illegitimate posting.


The danger, then, isn't from neo-Nazis or other weirdos who post content that's easy to
spot. It will be tough to catch carefully crafted postings that look and sound official.


There's no easy answer. Keeping a newsgroup clean takes careful monitoring and frequent
reviews of past postings.


Agencies setting up GovNews groups should prepare for the worst.


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