Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 16, 2009

Integrity, Validity or Security: Pick Any Two

Someone once said of the choice among quality, price, and timely delivery, “Pick any two.”  In recent years, Americans have operated under the illusion that such tradeoffs do not apply to us, at least with respect to information.  The pace of technological progress has fueled this illusion.

As individuals’ access to information has improved through the seemingly relentless convergence of information technologies, people have actually started wondering when, not if, a singularity will emerge.   Until this happens, we have to cope with the tradeoffs and their effects on democracy and trust.

As this blog’s other distinguished contributors and discussants has demonstrated on many occasions, homeland security professionals wrestle continuously with information management and technology policy issues that call upon us to balance information integrity, validity, and security.  Inevitably, these values find themselves expressed as tensions, and tradeoffs become inevitable as we seek to meet the expectations of politicians and citizens’ insatiable ‘needs to know.’

In addition to the need to know, we must now confront the ability to know.  Information and knowledge are not the same thing. Turning information into knowledge is a complex, time-consuming, and often costly process.  People in general have a poor capacity for interpreting large amounts of complex information and thus acquiring appreciable knowledge of risks, especially those far removed from their everyday experience.

This became abundantly clear to me recently, as the community where I work responded to a positive test for e. coli contamination in our drinking water supply.  Initial tests, like the one conducted here the day before Thanksgiving, had produced positive results on more than a dozen prior occasions without resulting in confirmation during subsequent testing.  This time was different though.

By the time the positive results were confirmed and the potential extent of contamination became clear, officials had to work out who needed to know what and then worried about the best way to communicate the information without provoking undue fear.  After all, they reckoned, the boil water notice issued in response to the finding in compliance with federal drinking water regulations was not itself a risk-free proposition: In other communities, more people suffered burns preparing water for consumption than suffered illness from the such contamination itself.

As word of the required actions and the city’s response to it was released to the news media and the public, feedback came in hot and fast.  Why had this notice not been issued sooner?  Why had officials relied so heavily on traditional media to get the word out?  Why had city officials not contacted water customers directly?

Those in the community asking these questions assumed they were the first to do so.  Moreover, they assumed that the answers were influenced primarily by money, technology, and administrative inertia, if not apathy or incompetence.  While cost, technical capability, and bureaucratic issues all play a role in delaying or preventing action, they are not the primary cause of officials’ concerns.  Those responsible for deciding when and how to act, including when and how to notify the public, tend to be consumed with concern for getting it right.  Herein lies the problem: A “right” response lies in the eyes of the beholder, and the public has taken a particularly jaundiced view of official actions to manage risks, especially those that involve an intersection between complex technologies and human health.

As I was digesting the very real implications of the dilemma occurring in my own community, I became aware of a report released at the beginning of October by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.  The report prepared by a commission of policy and technology experts co-chaired by former United States Solicitor General Theodore Olson and Google vice president Marisa Mayer was presented to federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski upon its release.

In short, the report warns of a growing information divide that threatens to undermine the foundations of American democracy. Addressing the divide, the report argues, will require coordinated effort on many fronts, and cannot be accomplished by either the government or the market acting alone.

Although improved access to technology, expanded transparency of government information, and increased commitment to engagement are all required, so too is increased literacy and numeracy – the capacity of people to appreciate information and turn it into useful knowledge.

So far, efforts to produce engagement even in some of the most creative, educated, and engaged communities through technology innovation have produced spotty results.  Open data and application development contests intended to engage private sector partners to leverage insights from public data have produced applications that do little to advance the public good.  In many cases, these applications simply make it easier for well-equipped citizens with smartphones to tell government officials they are doing a poor job responding to citizen concerns, while increasing the volume of complaints they have to deal with before they can get on with the work needed to remedy the underlying causes of what might otherwise be legitimate problems.

In other cases, applications that improve the efficiency of individual competition for consumption of public goods like parking spaces pass for innovation.  In still others, externalities clearly outweigh efficiencies by making undigested or unconfirmed information available in forms that further erode confidence in government.

In the early days of the republic, a learned man or woman of modest means could acquire a decent command of all available knowledge by applying him or herself with rigor and discipline.  Indeed, the signers of our own Declaration of Independence distinguished themselves as knowledgeable in a diverse array of subjects ranging from philosophy to law to agriculture to military strategy to engineering to commerce to religion.

Today, not one of us has any hope of achieving comparable mastery of extant knowledge.  The volume of information already in existence and the pace of new discoveries have simply become too vast, too specialized, too detailed, and too isolated from everyday experience for anyone to master regardless of mettle or means.  This does not seem to have lowered public expectations though.

In a world where people share information in real-time with one another over distances of thousands of miles and have instant access to hundreds of television channels, dozens of radio stations, and zettabytes (one zettabyte equals one billion terabytes) of data how do we overcome the illusion that information access equals knowledge?  With all of this information floating around us all the time, how do we decide what to tell people, when to tell them, and what method to use?

In the online discussion that emerged following the recent water contamination scare here, one participant in noted, “People do not trust institutions, they trust people.”  For him, at least, it was important not so much that someone had the answers to his questions, as it was that someone took responsibility for responding to his concerns.  In the absence of an official somebody, it seems anybody will do.  He, and many others, argued that the absence of official pronouncements only encouraged others to fill the void.

Not long ago, we relied upon media to do this for us.  That has changed, and media no longer have the capacity they once did to hold government accountable or to lower public expectations.  To the extent that media play an influential role in public debates these days, they are more likely to reinforce our biases than clarify positions or encourage dialogue.

It remains unclear whether social media or other technologies will bridge the gap between knowledge haves and have-nots.  If time is running out on our information illusions and our nation’s capacity to maintain trust in government and its democratic legitimacy are threatened by this growing divide, what will we make of the choice between integrity, validity, and security in the future and how will cost, quality, and timeliness influence our decisions?

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3 Comments »

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 16, 2009 @ 10:16 am

In regard to the e coli finding, given the public response you observed up close, can you characterize the public response as that of:

A. Citizens: Partners in civic governance, individuals who, in mindful association with others, assume a shared responsibility for a defined place and polity.

OR

B. Consumers: Individuals expecting to receive a product or service consistent with what he or she has paid.

I am — transparently — setting up an argument and you don’t have to play along. I would welcome other characterizations or explanations.

But I sometimes wonder if in trying to satisfy a consumer-oriented attitude we are not feeding a monster that may eventually devour the republic.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 16, 2009 @ 10:50 am

Another excellent post raising practical and theoretical questions about the IT world. I trained over 30-40 young lawyers in my time as a supervisor for a federal agency. The first one on one meeting between me and them involved my briefing them on several issues. But the first was the nature of lawyering itself. I took the position, which I clearly believed then and now, was that lawyers provided information, hopefully highly accurate, to clients based on their training, education, and experience. But I stated that they would be supervised by me and tested for evaluation on another facet of lawyering. Specifically, I stated that many competent Law Librarians and Para-legals could often provide even more up-to-date and accurate information. So how did the lawyering job differ. I said you are really being paid for you judgement. And as a supervisor I thought that their career or personality or training, education, experience elsewhere made me confident of their basic good lawyering judgement and that I hoped it would improve over time. Every lawyer I supervised without fail went on to bigger and better jobs than I ever held in the federal government. But many would always come back to me and reminisce about that first one-on-one. And I did not expect perfection. Sometimes the most ardous and difficult case even with adverse outcomes teachs the best.

Why this comment? Many disciplines have much to offer the world of HS and EM. It is in fact why those fields so interest me. And clearly the knowledge base of each discipline is quite different or even totally different. So it is alway fascinating to find out how different disciplines process the same information. It is the integration of those knowledge bases that is so important for the decision maker. The problem of course is how to process the judgements of different people in a crisis or emergency. Note that almost NO Top Officals actually ended up playing the TOPOFF series of Exercises or even now the first National Level Exercise and almost no reportage of lessons learned. A distinguished Professor of Public Administration early in this century wrote a truly wonderful article about how the Department of Homeland Security and Homeland Security generally needed to be both a learning organization and to develop processes to learn from its mistakes. I still view HS and EM as bottom up systems and processes. But we continue to see secretive, non-transparent, and authoritarian management in these areas. One of the reasons to delegate both authority and accountablility in crisis management is that then if mistakes are made, which they will be, the damage is at least somewhat localized. Why doesn’t FEMA which process 50-90 disasters declared by the President each year have a lessons-learned report for each real world disaster? Perhaps other components of DHS also have real world events of every scale. Some perhaps the Coast Guard may already have processes in place to learn from those real world operations. My bottom line of course is that just because someone is recruited into DHS does not mean that even with the training, experience, or education, they will have “Gravitas” and judgement in a crisis. And some may just be beyond their best years to operate under stress for 24/7/365 on and on. The emergency response sector is remarkably thin even on the first line and believe me no one operates well with no sleep for 24-36 hours. Social media is another complexity added to the information base but it certainly is not designed to improve judgement calls. Great thread and comments.

Comment by Mark Chubb

December 16, 2009 @ 11:56 am

Bill, your comment raises an important point underlying my concern. What you seem to have encouraged among your young colleagues was an enduring commitment to reflective practice. I fear that our immersion in a steady stream of information coming at us like the flow from a fire hydrant encourages too many of us to try and consume more rather than sip carefully. We often overlook the opportunity costs of consuming information even if we appreciate the transaction costs.

Phil’s question strikes at the core of my concern. Has the commodification of information encouraged a culture of consumption that overlooks the fundamental question of value? I fear it has or is in the process of doing so.

Those who questioned the city’s response came from both of Phil’s perspectives: Some were concerned that the city had become too concerned with economic and technical concerns to be relied upon to care for much less respond to the public good, which they reckoned required us to notify everyone at once. Others quite clearly responded as customers who were unhappy that the quality of the product was compromised and that they were not informed directly by a responsible official willing to accept responsibility and apologize for the inconvenience.

As the city has responded to new drinking water mandates in recent years, citizens and officials have debated the wisdom of covering the city’s reservoirs. Arguments against this proposition took two main forms: 1) this would be a needless expense in a city blessed with an abundant supply of surprisingly clean drinking water and 2) this represents a capitulation to the culture of fear arising after 9/11.

Today, as the city comes to realize that Canadians (geese), not Muslim extremists, are poisoning their drinking water with biological agents, their perceptions seem to be changing, albeit slowly.

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