Private contractors worrisome for open government

Freedom Newspapers

It could well have been just what a Department of Homeland Security press spokesman said, a response “to a hypothetical question with a hypothetical answer.” But if Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is even toying with such an idea he should think better of it.

According to National Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman, at a private meeting of security-industry officials organized by the Information Technology Association of America, Secretary Chertoff “floated an idea to start a nonprofit group that would collect information on private citizens, flag suspicious activity and send names of suspicious people to his department.”

More specifically, what “one techie who attended the April 27 meeting” remembered Chertoff telling the group was: “Maybe we can create a nonprofit and track people’s activities, and an algorithm could red-flag individuals. Then the nonprofit could give us names.”

It sounds as if this is an idea in the consider-all-possibilities stage rather than a firm proposal. We hope it has already been rejected.

Gorman’s informant said Chertoff was suggesting that having a nonprofit rather than the government collect names might alleviate privacy concerns. We think it could increase such concerns.

Although most Americans gripe about it, most people have become accustomed to being on numerous databases compiled by private businesses. Most folks’ worries don’t go much beyond griping because the usual outcome is an offer for some product or service similar to something they have purchased or expressed interest in previously. That can be annoying, but it’s not all that invasive.

If the public started to think that private companies were regularly handing over their databases to the government to identify suspicious characters, it would be more concerned, and rightly so.

At an earlier public speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Chertoff acknowledged that the government is still developing expertise in security and asked businesses for help. The Homeland Security Department has started to outsource a good deal of work to private contractors.

Contracting has its advantages. But in this arena, outsourcing raises serious concerns regarding open government. Would private companies or a created nonprofit that got it wrong in identifying suspicious characters be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and other mechanisms that, however imperfectly, mandate government agencies to disclose full information, even if it’s embarrassing? Would the public be able to examine the criteria used to “red-flag” people?

This idea is not worth testing, piloting or even considering. Secretary Chertoff should drop it immediately.