Fears that the nation's commitment to security will dwindle along with the rubble from Sept. 11's attacks were allayed at the recent Transportation Research Board conference in Washington, D.C., by the urgency with which the underpinnings of our information systems were being discussed, dissected and analyzed.
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But even as the goals of enhanced security were affirmed, concerns were voiced that the free-flow of information upon which many systems rely could be jeopardized by ill-considered changes.
"Prior to 9/11, it was an open-access society. Then it went completely the other way," noted Ann Johnson, higher education solutions manager with Environmental Systems Research Institute, Redlands, Calif., in a session on balancing accessibility to spatial data with security concerns. ESRI has been a key provider of geographic information systems technology for recovery work following the September attacks and GIS has emerged as a critical tool for addressing the cascading challenges they spawned.
But balancing open access to data with the need to deny intelligence to enemies is a worrisome issue, Johnson says. And it is one that must be addressed more effectively than by just shutting off information. "Immediately after the attacks, favorite sites on the Internet were closed. Some sites closed pages and links and some were ordered to scrub and even destroy certain assets," Johnson says.
Some information that was pulled probably was excessive, Johnson acknowledged. It includes the FAA'S site that once gave altitude and coordinate information in real-time for airplanes in flight. "Targeting information, basically," she said. But other restrictions that may be contemplated under stress—such as limiting access to differential GPS data or traffic information such as the Federal Highway Administration now posts—could raise significant issues in many areas for emergency response and construction planning and control people. "It's very difficult to do risk assessment and planning if your data is no longer accessible or available," Johnson said.
Johnson pointed to Websites of the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management at the federal Dept. of the Interior as examples of how security issues can rip holes in the data web. The sites and all their links and data have been effectively closed by court order since Dec. 5 on a complaint that Indian trust data on department servers was not secure.