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Mapping secure boundaries for data



Amsterdam’s airport, Schipol, is under water. Aircrafts can’t move in or out. Chaos has ensued. … So begins the 1983 Alistair MacLean adventure novel, Floodgate. In it, a group of extremists terrorize Holland, threatening to blow up the country’s infamous dikes and create deadly flooding.

Though far-flung at first glance, such terrorist scenarios have become part of the day-to-day thinking process for state and federal agencies seeking to protect American infrastructure from attack. In deciding what information could pose harm to the country if made public, they must think like terrorists, says Maeve Boland, a graduate student at the Colorado School of Mines.

A geologist, Boland has been studying U.S. policy on geospatial data for her doctoral thesis in public policy. She’s noticed a trend of geospatial data disappearing from digital maps and databases: oil and gas pipelines, power stations, logging roads, reservoirs and dams, to name a few. Although disappointing, Boland says, the trend is not surprising.

Ever since White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card last year issued a memo to the heads of all federal departments and agencies, ordering them to protect “sensitive but unclassified” information from inappropriate disclosure, more and more agencies are removing such sensitive data from the public forum — worried that the Floodgate story may be closer to reality than not.

But just what data constitute “sensitive but unclassified,” also called “sensitive homeland security information,” has yet to be determined. Traditionally, data have been either classified or unclassified. At a House Science Committee hearing last October, John Marburger, the president’s science advisor, said: “The designation Sensitive Homeland Security Information (SHSI) does not refer to some new category of information; rather it is the type of information that the government holds today that is not routinely released to the general public, such as law enforcement data and critical computer security threats or vulnerabilities. The vast majority of government information is and will remain publicly accessible.”

In February, a group of more than 30 authors and journals, including Science and Nature, announced that they would begin screening papers for data that might pose a security threat, particularly for developing biological weapons; if the risk of publication outweighs the benefits, the paper will not go to print.

Geospatial data, while not completely insulated, are often less sensitive than biological information, but are still a concern among federal agencies. “Unclassified geospatial information is by far the most useful for everyone, but who that ‘everyone’ actually is remains an issue in a time of concern for homeland security,” says Martin Eckes, senior policy advisor for mapping at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Case in point is the well-publicized removal of USGS water CDs from the public domain. Water suppliers requested that USGS not publicly distribute the CDs, which contained their information about drinking water intakes. USGS decided to ask libraries that already had the CDs to destroy them until they could release the information without worry. “At the time we put it together, we were assuming a public that was concerned about water quality to protect its water quality,” says Katherine Lins, acting chief of the Office of Information for USGS water resources. “And suddenly we realized when we got this request in from the water suppliers’ community that we were handing information up that might put their facilities at risk,”

That was in October of 2001. Since then, USGS, like other federal agencies, has actively discussed how to handle potentially sensitive data without restricting them from public access, Lins says. Rather than removing the data, USGS decided to carefully select language that would not reveal sensitive information — for example, listing a well but not specifying it as a drinking water intake.

But many agencies have opted to remove sensitive data outright from their sites. In October 2001, the Department of Transportation removed pipeline mapping information from its Web site. In April 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency restricted direct access to some of its data-
bases on water, air, toxics and radiation to federal agencies and contractors only. The Department of Energy (DOE) has removed a range of information over the past two years, from energy market maps and energy infrastructure maps to information on liquefied gas fuel dangers. The list goes on.

Boland says that much of this response comes from fear. “Somebody has to actually put their name to saying whether it’s in the greater public’s interest to have the information out there with the slim chance that someone might use it against us, or if it is better to be ultra cautious and take everything off access; nobody wants their signature on something that might backfire.”

As more maps go digital, agencies can more easily choose to remove sensitive geospatial data, particularly on layered GIS maps, Boland adds. “The average USGS map is over 20 years old, so any information on those paper maps is going to stay there a while. But with digital information, you can just click and remove a layer.”

Donna Anderson, an assistant research professor of geology at the Colorado School of Mines, is working on a DOE research proposal to geologically characterize potential places to sequester carbon dioxide. She wanted to map the radii around power plants, which are large sources of carbon dioxide emissions, as possible sites for sequestration.

“In my searches, I was looking for power plant locations as well as pipeline locations, and I kept running into federal government Web sites where the information was no longer accessible,” Anderson says. Some of the data had been removed as recently as January, she says. “The interesting corollary to that is that in the last couple of weeks, I have gotten e-mail advertisements from private companies offering data on CD and hard copy for the sum of $299.”

Anderson obtained the information she needed the old-fashioned way, before the boom of free data on the Internet. She pieced together topographic maps and paper publications that the State of Utah had put out years ago. “And I digitized my own pipelines,” she says.

Although her experience posed a mere inconvenience, Anderson has concerns about the big picture. “It’s a general question in my mind whether, say, the USGS topographic map information will remain on the Web for free forever.” If the data become unavailable due to tighter security, she fears a commercialization of information similar to what happened with Landsat data in the 1980s, when the satellite imagery became privatized, dramatically raising the cost of research.

Geospatial data could become more classified as the country redefines national security, Boland says. USGS has traditionally been the civilian mapping agency for the domestic United States. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) is the military’s mapping branch and part of the intelligence community, with a stated mission “to provide timely, relevant and accurate geospatial intelligence in support of national security.”

“Really until September 11, everyone assumed national security meant overseas,” Boland says. “The definition of national security has been completely turned around and now it means homeland security as well as international security, so NIMA sees itself as having an important role in mapping the United States as well as overseas.” And that could spell a culture shift from the public domain access of USGS to the classified nature of NIMA.

Eckes of USGS says that NIMA’s new emphasis on geospatial intelligence for homeland security has precipitated some strong intrusions on traditional USGS mission areas. For the past year, he says, the two agencies have been working together under a memo of understanding that outlines a blueprint for partnership.

Anita Cohen, director for the Office of Americas at NIMA says that layers in the USGS National Map (proposed in 2001 and still in its infancy) provide a foundation for NIMA mapping. “On top of that, we provide denser data required for the homeland security mission,” she says.

Much of that data, however, is commercially available for a fee, posing a greater risk to information availability than potential classification, Cohen says. “We buy it and of course can’t put it in the public domain, but still use it for the purpose of homeland security.” NIMA’s priority, she says, is to provide unclassified data for homeland security. “Critical to the national security mission is the ability to widely share data, for example with state and local as well as federal emergency responders.”

These types of discussions will continue, Boland says, with agencies determining where to strike the balance between openness and security. She suspects that more areas of geoscience will start to see the effects, with geologic hazards entering the discussion on sensitive data.

Thinking as a terrorist would for devising possible uses of such hazards data, she says: “Let’s say that I-70, where it runs through Colorado, has several areas particularly vulnerable to rock falls, landslides or avalanches. If you are a terrorist and you want to block I-70, setting off a small detonation in those vulnerable areas could easily create a rock fall that would block the road” — a plot line representative of the tough choices facing scientific agencies.

Lisa M. Pinsker


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