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Government IT must consider privacy, ethics

By Grant Gross
March 24, 2004 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - 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 United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (DHS US-VISIT) 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

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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