Post-9/11, 'sanitized' sites aim to shield data
Agencies, groups remove information deemed too sensitive
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Before September 11, 2001, most federal groups viewed the Internet as a place to store their vast library of public documents and as a way to network with community leaders in a timelier manner.
But in the days that followed 9/11, authorities revealed that terrorists also used the Web because they had access to the same technology.
Government agencies suddenly scrambled to assess what they released into cyberspace, vetting it for any sign that it could be used to exploit structural or security vulnerabilities.
A year later, a recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that "69 percent of Americans say the government should do everything it can to keep information out of terrorists' hands, even if that means the public will be deprived of information it needs or wants."
And, according to the same study, more than two-thirds of Americans said that the government should be granted wide privileges in deciding what information to post on its sites.
But civil liberty advocates and government watchdogs said that while they understand why certain data must be shielded, they argue that the "sanitization" process is being done in a vacuum. They also fear that removing these informative documents from public view could jeopardize the well-being of citizens who cannot access them.
What remains clear from all parties involved is that a delicate balance must be struck between public access and safety.
"We definitely have our awareness up, our sensitivities up," said Beth Hayden, spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one of more than a dozen federal agencies that altered their sites. "If there's a question of whether something needs to be made public in the new environment, it probably won't be made public."
Hayden said the agency's entire site initially was stripped from the Internet on October 11 but was restored October 17 as part of an ongoing redesign project. Gone from the site were schematics relating to 104 U.S. nuclear power plants, from access controls to details such as wall thickness.
Today, Hayden said that information -- about 2 percent of the overall content -- remains off the site and likely won't be restored.
'Things have definitely changed'
The Environmental Protection Agency acted within 48 hours of the 9/11 attacks, opting to remove risk management plans that offer specific outlines of the nation's chemical plants, including how they're handled and scenarios for possible releases. The plans had been posted on the Web so state or city officials and the public could view them in the event of an emergency.
Elaine Stanley, director of the EPA's Office of Information Analysis and Access, said the plans are available upon request (with proper credentials) and also are stored at about 50 reading rooms across the country. However, the information cannot be copied or leave the reading rooms.
Beyond the various federal agencies such as the NRC and EPA, other groups also grappled with what to take offline.
The Federation of American Scientists is an organization dedicated to government openness, so officials said they were hesitant to act without careful consideration.
In the end, said federation senior research analyst Steve Aftergood, detailed maps of several federal buildings were taken down.
Aftergood said the data amounts to 200 Web pages out of about 500,000, all of which was information unique to the federation's site.
"We used to put it all out there," Aftergood said. "But we're less inclined to do that now. Things have definitely changed."
Aftergood said he has not given up hope that the climate will shift back to pre-9/11, but he expects the review procedure to be ongoing. The federation also will continue to assess federal documents with an eye for helping shape public policy, he added.
Watchdog group speaks out
But the internal reviews conducted by these different groups aren't enough to satisfy everyone.
Government watchdog group OMB Watch said not enough has been done in the past year to streamline the process.
"It's rather troubling that a year later, we have no clarification of the government's position," said Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at OMB Watch. "There is no formal policy to determine what should be posted on a Web site. There is such paranoia that there is no free flow of discussion."
Moulton said that while his organization understands the need to keep certain information behind closed doors, the entire federal system has acted "too hastily" and without enough regard for public health and safety.
OMB Watch also is asking for clearer guidelines to determine if data that has been removed from the Internet can be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and for better specifications of what is contained within that information.
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