Data numbers binary

Can NASA vet all material in its shuttered tech database?

When NASA recently took its large Technical Reports Server (NTRS) offline, following the arrest of a suspected spy,  it removed a database of aerospace information that had been shared with scientists and the general public for 19 years. And at least one analyst predicted it might stay shuttered.

NTRS, which had been available online since its inception in 1994, contains conference papers, journal articles, meeting papers, patents, research reports, images, movies and technical videos related to aeronautics and aerospace. Researchers, students, educators and the public have used the massive amount of data in NTRS, which holds approximately 500,000 aerospace related citations, 90,000 full-text online documents, and 111,000 images and videos.

But after the FBI last week arrested Bo Jiang, a Chinese citizen had been working as a contractor at NASA’s Langley Research Center, NASA shut down NTRS. Visitors to the site now get a message that states, in part:

“The NASA technical reports server will be unavailable for public access while the agency conducts a review of the site's content to ensure that it does not contain technical information that is subject to U.S. export control laws and regulations and that the appropriate reviews were performed.”

Space policy analyst Dwayne Day predicted the database will stay shuttered if NASA has to comb through all material before posting, reported Steven Aftergood in his Secrecy News blog. Aftergood is also director of the government secrecy program at the Federation of American Scientists.

“There is a HUGE amount of material on NTRS,” Day told Aftergood. “If NASA is forced to review it all, it will never go back online.”

“I’d also note that a large amount of historical Mercury/Gemini/Apollo documents that were previously available at [the National Archives at] Fort Worth is now apparently withdrawn due to ITAR [export controls],” Day said.

Aftergood noted that fears of unauthorized disclosure have hindered scientific information sharing before. "It is a familiar outlook that has wreaked havoc with the nation’s historical declassification program, and has periodically disrupted routine access to record collections at the National Archives, as well as online collections at the CIA, the Los Alamos technical report library, and elsewhere," he wrote.

Jiang was arrested at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, outside of Washington, while boarding a plane to Beijing. He had been flagged as being affiliated with an institution in China designated as an “entity of concern” by other U.S. government agencies. According to the arrest warrant, Jiang is charged with making false statements to federal agents — failing to disclose that he was carrying a laptop, hard drive and SIM card that were discovered after a search of his belongings at the airport.

NASA’s decision to close down NTRS came after comments on Jiang’s arrest by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), about the potential security issues of NASA’s technical data being available to the public.

“NASA should immediately take down all publicly available technical data sources until all documents that have not been subjected to export control review have received such a review and all controlled documents are removed from the system,” Wolf said. 

Wolf had raised questions about security at Langely Research Center more than a week before the arrest, saying at a March 7 press conference that he had learned of a “troubling instance where thousands of declassified but extremely sensitive documents were posted on a NASA website inappropriately.”

Wolf said that the documents “were available for the world to access, including countries of concern like China and Iran. There are reports that this website was accessed extensively from foreign countries of concern. This website is still active and should be taken down immediately and should undergo appropriate security reviews.”

Shutting down a database the size of NTRS could raise concerns for public-sector agencies that in recent years have moved aggressively toward opening up their data stores and sharing datasets as part of a move toward transparency. Agencies don’t intend to disclose sensitive or classified information, of course, but the volume of available information leaves open the possibility.

And the subsequent challenge with shutting down an open database is that a lot of that information already has been shared.

In the NASA Watch blog, Keith Cowling wrote, “What is really baffling is how this site could have been online — for decades — and not have had a process to prevent inappropriate material from being posted.”

He also wondered why NTRS would be the only site shut down. “Oddly, these related NASA sites [JPL Technical Report Server, NASA Johnson Technical Reports Server] with linkage to NTRS are still online for ‘public access’… Why aren't other NASA technical information websites offline?” he wrote.

In a more recent post, Cowling pointed out that, although NTRS is closed to the general public, government employees and contractors can still register and gain access. “But wait, wasn't access by contractors supposed to have been the problem in the first place?” he asked.


About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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