by Sarah D. Scalet

A Little Knowledge Deemed a Dangerous Thing: Government Pulls Questionable Data After 9/11

Feb 01, 20022 mins
Disaster Recovery

In more innocent times, public agencies that wanted to shine made information?lots of it?available on their websites. That all changed on Sept. 11, as jittery CIOs across the country considered how information could be misused, and adjusted their websites accordingly. The Department of Transportation pulled information about where natural gas pipelines were located, for instance, and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics removed information about the country’s most heavily used roads. At the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), a 2002 Enterprise Value Awards winner (see Page 48 for more on this year’s awards), administrators quietly yanked a function that allowed visitors to view a map showing environmental problems by address, county or ZIP code.

Removing a feature that had impressed Enterprise Value Awards judges and citizens alike was not, understandably, something they were eager to discuss. Initially the department said the server had crashed and that the IT employees charged with fixing it had been called to antiterrorism duty instead. In fact, the antiterrorism duty included weeding out information that could be used by terrorists.

In late October, DEP Secretary David Hess said his department was still trying to figure out how to respond to legitimate information requests without making public water supplies vulnerable. Eventually, he said, citizens would be able to make requests for sensitive materials online and be put through a screening process.

Public response, though, underscored how valuable the information had been for concerned citizens, journalists and activists, who called the department asking when service would be restored. “People are aggravated,” says Nancie Imler, bureau director of program integration and effectiveness. “That’s how you know somebody is using it?you get a lot of calls.”