further restrictions on public data

On the 40th anniversary of the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the federal government has given a $1million grant to a Texas Law School to determine how to limit the act. The goal is to craft a statute for state governments and the federal government specifying what public data can and cannot be released. That is, specify which public data that is currently accessible should be no longer accessible.

Keep in mind that laws for releasing public information are not uniform state to state. Many states do not have FOIAs, that is mechanisms to automatically release data to the public. Also there have always been restrictions on access for privacy and security concerns. So it’s not like you or I can get any type of public information we want.

Consider the following “harrowing” scenario posed by the professor at the law school who received the grant:

In 2003, he said, a simulated cyberattack on San Antonio’s water and government information systems showed that computer security data that was protected under federal law could have been accessed by terrorists under Texas legislation.

Protecting national security is important; however, there’s been no instance like this in the US. This example is particularly poignant since Texas has one of the best repositories for spatial data that is generated by state agencies. Restrictions on FOIA have horrible implications for access to spatial data. The ostensible reason may be national security but the goal is to write the model law broadly to cover all contingencies. Granted, flexibility is important. But so is transparency and accountability. This won’t be the first time that governments have used restrictions on access to public data as a way to limit exposure to liability, protect special interests, or prevent embarassment. The first victim will likely be environmental protection. You want to protest the extension of the road network because of its adverse envionmental impacts? Sorry, but you can’t get the digital data because access is a “security risk”. Adds the critics:

Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says the research program is in keeping with a recent federal trend to use “homeland security” as an excuse to restrict unrelated material.

Overall, a poor birthday present for an act that makes the US government so transparent.

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