Feds say they need vendor backup for security, privacy

If it had the political nerve, the Transportation Security Administration could guarantee air safety by collecting passenger information from public and private databases, industry executives said at a recent Washington forum sponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government.

"It"s not a technology problem, it"s a problem of political will ... what we are willing to give up" in exchange for greater security, said Steve Perkins, senior vice president for public-sector business at Oracle Corp.

Oracle formed the Liberty Alliance with Electronic Data Systems Corp., PricewaterhouseCoopers Inc. of New York and Sun Microsystems Inc. to sell the database-mining idea to the government. Their emphasis is on hardware and software integration, not privacy or data security.

"Our goal is to push the bounds of the technology," Perkins said. "I don't see a role for the alliance on the policy side."

Government officials, however, said privacy and security policies require industry participation.

"The whole concept of shared databases being at risk is something government can"t deal with effectively without private-sector partners that control some of the most extensive databases," said Mary Mitchell, the General Services Administration"s program executive for e-government policy.

TSA was created after Sept. 11 to oversee security of the nation"s transportation systems. The Liberty Alliance formed at the same time with a double-barreled business objective: Sell to the government, and protect the aviation customer base.

"It was clear that the [aviation] industry even before Sept. 11 was in deep financial turmoil," said Scott Hartz, global managing partner for PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting.

Who do we trust?

The alliance has proposed a national security system to authenticate passengers through public databases, cross-referenced against federal watch lists. Trusted passengers would be issued biometric smart cards for faster processing at airport checkpoints. A similar system would identify airport employees in restricted areas.

Sun chief executive officer Scott McNealy minimized the risks of such a system, calling anonymity "a very dangerous weapon. You're not losing privacy that you haven't already lost anyway."

But Chris Israel, deputy assistant secretary of Commerce for technology policy, said risks to privacy grow as personal data is gathered and consolidated for homeland security.

"The paradigm is going to have to be completely changed," Israel said. Biometrics is both an answer and a threat to privacy, and government policy will have to be retooled to address the new risks, he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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