U.S. panel: Government IT must consider privacy, ethics

U.S. government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are being pitched many new technologies, but government technologists have an obligation to consider ethical and moral issues such as privacy when embracing new applications, concluded a panel of technology experts speaking at the FOSE government computing trade show.

The Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM), a nonprofit group focused at improving information management in the U.S. government, sponsored the Tuesday panel as a way to kick off a long-term discussion on the ethics of technology regarding privacy and other ethical issues, said Scott Hastings, president of AFFIRM and chief information officer in the DHS US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) immigration security program. AFFIRM plans to launch a Web site addressing technology and ethics within weeks and eventually issue a white paper on related topics, Hastings said.

Technologies such as biometrics are developing faster than lawmakers can consider legislation to deal with them, Hastings said.

He’s now spending more than three-quarters of his time considering if his program should roll out new technologies, not how it implements them, he added.

“I’ve seen an array of technological solutions in the past six to eight months that I had no idea was out there,” Hastings said. “In some cases it’s fascinating, and in some cases, it’s sobering. For every technological solution that’s rolled out, there is a constituency who is questioning the utility of it, the ethics of it, the privacy implications.”

Hastings gave an example — “let’s just call it a hypothetical,” he said — of DHS being pitched a non-intrusive type of biometric scanner that can establish the identity of people it scans. The technology could also be used to scan a person’s chemical composition and body temperature, allowing the agency to tell if those being scanned had recently used illegal drugs.

“I’m sitting there in a discussion like that wondering, ‘where does this take us?’ ” Hastings said. “‘What do I anticipate as a public servant?’ These are the kinds of things I see on a weekly basis in the job I do.”

Hastings and Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, questioned whether IT vendors can be expected to present the ethical issues when they pitch their products to government buyers. Sales people are not generally trained to address difficult ethical issues while trying to make a sale; they’re trained to tell potential customers what the customers want to hear, Paller said.

Paller advocated that government agencies address ethical concerns in the procurement stage, with specific guidelines addressing issues such as privacy. “If you set up regulations and ask them to (address ethical issues), they say, ‘Thank you for the regulations,’ because they wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” he said. “You as the government, if you want the industry to respond these issues, you need to be explicit.”

But Hastings called on industry groups representing vendors to address ethical issues such as privacy. “Is it time for us to collaborate in a more thoughtful way?” he asked.

It’s important for government technologists to think about ethical issues for a number of reasons, added Frank Reeder, founder of the Reeder Group, a consulting firm focusing on information policy. While few ethical breeches may land technology executives in jail, many involve political risk, and the potential to damage an official’s reputation, he said.

“Flat out, you could be embarrassed,” he said. “None of you want to be spending a lot of time visiting with your friends in oversight committees, explaining why something bad happened on your watch.”

Addressing ethical issues also helps the public understand and embrace new technologies, he said. Consumers want to know how their data will be used before adopting technologies such as government Internet forms, he added.

The panel also addressed several questions from the audience, largely of government employees. One question was: “What’s wrong with the statement, ‘If someone has nothing to hide, why shouldn’t we be able to take their biometric data?’ “

Reeder answered: “I would submit to you that none of you would tolerate routine invasion of your homes and searching of your personal possessions by a police force because you had nothing to hide.”

Related Download
Improving the State of Affairs With Analytics Sponsor: SAS
Improving the State of Affairs With Analytics
Download this case study-rich white paper to learn why data management and analytics are so crucial in the public sector, and how to put it to work in your organization.
Register Now