The George W. Bush administration plans to convene a panel of government and private-sector labour and legal experts to develop guidelines for subjecting tens of thousands of corporate IT and other employees to background investigations.

The panel, as described in the president’s National Strategy for Homeland Security report, released recently, would be convened jointly by the secretary of Homeland Security and the attorney general following the establishment of a cabinet-level U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It would examine whether current employer liability statutes and privacy concerns would hinder “necessary background checks for personnel with access to critical infrastructure facilities or systems.”

That means employees in industries that include banking, chemicals, energy, transportation, telecommunications, shipping and public health would be subject to background investigations as a condition of employment.

“Personnel with privileged access to critical infrastructure, particularly [IT-based] control systems, may serve as terrorist surrogates by providing information on vulnerabilities, operating characteristics and protective measures,” the Bush report states.

Some IT professionals see the plan as both an infringement on civil liberties and a recipe for destroying innovation and economic prosperity.

Jonathan Blitt, president of ITT Industries Inc.’s network systems and services division in New York, said expanding background investigations would do more harm than good. “The people you most want on your side are the people that may seem least desirable to a panel of so-called experts,” Blitt said, referring to the community of programmers and ethical hackers who often live on what he referred to as the “fringe” of society.

“This pandering to the masses should stop, and professional reason should start. This plan could put shackles on an industry that is critical to the growth of our country.”

Others see no problem with the requirement for background investigations. Eric Johansen, a systems analyst at ReliaStar Life Insurance Co. in Minneapolis, is one of those.

“Yes, there is added cost, but companies should be doing this anyway as part of standard hiring procedures,” Johansen said.

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