The Government's Loose Lips
A private research group told Congress today that mountains of sensitive government data are freely circulating on peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing services -- the successor applications to Napster, one of the iconic names of my adolescence. With some savvy searching, apparently, one can find documents locating every nuclear missile silo in the U.S., files containing family information for every master sergeant in the Army, lists of social security numbers, medical records and so forth -- the sort of stuff reporters couldn’t dream of obtaining with a Freedom of Information Act request.
Now, some in Congress appear ready to go after the file-sharing services, with lawmakers threatening all manner of investigations into such allegations as unfair trade practices. But focusing too much on the file-sharing services is misguided. Consider the case of Napster, which was forced to go legit and then saw its clientele rapidly move to other applications, demonstrating that regulating the development and functionality of such programs is near impossible since alternative services will pop up overnight. At least one of the file-sharing programs under scrutiny today, LimeWire, has said it is building better safeguards to prevent the spread of sensitive data. But even if Congress forces LimeWire to write safeguard after safeguard into its code, there’s nothing to compel a teenager writing the next big P2P application overseas to meet the same standards. Besides, making P2P the whipping boy for others’ carelessness lets those who stupidly gave millions access to sensitive data off the hook.
Instead, policymakers should remember that it is the government’s responsibility to keep its secrets secret. The same applies to other keepers of private data. Even as he threatened the P2P folks with investigation, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had a better idea: Simply ban such software on government computers and those of government contractors (the sort of rule with which I have to comply on my computer here at The Post), and do a better job of educating those who are charged with handling sensitive material about how they might accidentally disseminate it by downloading Green Day’s latest album. Call it the 21st century equivalent of loose lips sink ships.
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