Business Technology: Your Tax Dollars At Work - InformationWeek
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Bob Evans
Bob Evans

Business Technology: Your Tax Dollars At Work

Bob Evans digs up 10 recent examples of how some of your tax money is being spent. By his reckoning, there are some good, some bad, and some very, very ugly.

With your annual date with the IRS only about a month away, this seems like a propitious time to take a look at some of the ways that the cold, hard cash you fork over to the government is being deployed with respect to business technology and free enterprise overall. Because as President Calvin Coolidge put it 80 years ago, "The business of America is business." So I've dug up 10 very recent examples of how some of that money is being spent, and, by my reckoning, out of those 10 we have some good (four), some bad (three), and some very, very ugly (three).

Good No. 1: The Department of Justice, which for the past decade has been battling Microsoft over antitrust charges, awarded a big contract to a competing vendor for word-processing software for more than 50,000 users. Valued at $13.2 million, the five-year deal won by Corel makes perfect sense for a couple of reasons. First of all, Corel's WordPerfect is already widely used by 20 subgroups within the Justice Department and lawyers involved in cases there; and second, if Microsoft had won the bid, how could Justice possibly rationalize a decision to spend many millions of dollars with a company the department had been at war with for 10 years over unfair business practices? Competition makes us all better, and it's now up to Corel to help ensure that those 50,000 users get their--er, your--full money's worth.

Good No. 2: "Members of a terrorist group arrested over the weekend in Bangalore, India, appear to have been targeting the country's IT services industry," my colleague Paul McDougall wrote last week. Bangalore is at the heart of India's booming technology industry and is home to some of that country's major technology-services companies, as well as the Indian headquarters for such U.S. companies as Accenture and IBM. The arrests that foiled the terrorist attack reflect the safety and security of this country's IT infrastructure and networks for the past 3-1/2 years in spite of relentless threats and the attractiveness of those targets to terrorists. Hats off to all the public- and private-sector IT and law-enforcement professionals who've kept this vital infrastructure safe.

Good No. 3: The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics ground through its monthly numbers and found that in the past year, one in every 50 jobs created in this country was in IT services--about 49,000 new positions. "Employment at IT-services companies rose 4.4% to more than 1.7 million in February, up from 1.1 million a year earlier, according to the latest employment report issued by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics," my colleague Eric Chabrow reported. "To put those numbers in perspective, all nonfarm payrolls increased a modest 1.8%, or 2.377 million, year over year to 132.8 million." It's good to see that more companies are rebuilding their IT expertise as the economy continues to grow, and some small credit also reflects on the Labor Department for compiling and reporting those numbers. That's surely a better use of that agency's time and money than when it gave gobs of money to McDonald's to train IT workers....

Good No. 4: Embattled ChoicePoint Inc., which keeps records on nearly every U.S. citizen, has agreed to stop selling information containing Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, and other sensitive consumer data. That decision came on the heels of separate investigations into the company's operations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission into last year's theft of personal data affecting tens of thousands of consumers in 50 states, as well as recent trading in company stock by two of its top executives. That theft could expose the personal information of 145,000 individuals at a time when concern over data integrity and privacy is soaring in this country. The investigations by the SEC and the FTC will surely raise the level of scrutiny that all sensible U.S. businesses are placing on their data, their privacy policies, their business processes, and their audit rigor. These are difficult but absolutely essential objectives to be tackled as soon as possible.

Bad No. 1: My placement of this one skewers me personally because it so happens that I come out on the same side of the issue as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is about as likely as the Red Sox winning the World Series: once a century. The issue is that a California judge has ruled that publishers of online news covering Apple Computer can be compelled to reveal their sources. In a case that seems likely to ultimately move from the state level to the Supreme Court, TechWeb News reports, "Apple maintains that California's Shield Law, which protects journalists from being forced to reveal sources, should not apply to Internet sites. In addition, the firm stated in court filings that free-speech protections likewise should not apply to the three Internet sites." I think Apple is trying to split a hair that doesn't exist: Press freedoms were originally intended to apply to the printed word because that's all that existed at the time. But those protections were not denied to radio reports or to TV reports or to "mainstream" Web sites, and I think this effort by Apple will be shut down. While some bloggers are indeed lunatics, many have every bit as much credibility and professionalism as anyone in the "mainstream" media.

Bad No. 2: The fight against virus writers and spreaders goes on, but more evidence indicates that the loathsome bastards are increasing their lead over legislative efforts to constrain them. Last week, security firm Kaspersky Lab posted on its Web site a statement saying that the latest Bagel attacks show "once again how helpless legislation is in the face of cybercrime." Noting that cyberterrorists "can practice their craft with near impunity," TechWeb News reported that Kaspersky's statement went on to say that "hackers understand that legislation is powerless to stop them and are continuing to extend their reach." Sure, this is just one company's opinion--but does it reflect reality? Can anyone point to significant blows struck by legislation against these criminals, or have such laws done little more than provide a false sense of security that "something" is being done? If legislation is indeed "helpless" and "powerless" to stop virus writers and their malicious work, then whose job is it to stop them? Business customers? Software vendors? Some new anti-cyberterrorism unit out of the FBI or the NSA? We'd all better come up with some answers, because the loathsome bastards show no signs of letting up.

Bad No. 3: According to The Associated Press, the FBI will begin using commercially available software for Internet surveillance and toss out the system called Carnivore that it developed several years ago to read online communications among suspected terrorists and criminals. In addition, AP said, the FBI will begin to enlist the help of Internet service providers "to conduct wiretaps on targeted customers on the government's behalf, reimbursing companies for their costs." So far, so good--I have no problem with the FBI or any other law-enforcement agency upgrading its effectiveness and capabilities through new and better technologies and partnerships. But what landed this item into the Bad category were these statistics from the FBI: In fiscal 2002 and 2003, the agency performed 13 Internet wiretaps, but in precisely zero of those efforts did the FBI use the Carnivore software that it had developed specifically for such an application. The FBI said that between 1998 and 2000, Carnivore--which might have cost up to $15 million to develop--was used about 25 times, according to the AP story. Does that number of uses gibe with the current terrorist climate, or does it seem woefully low? Is it possible that the FBI developed not a flesh-eating carnivore but rather a peanut-popping white elephant? It would be nice to give the bureau the benefit of the doubt, but the disastrous FBI experience cited below with the case-file-sharing system suggests no reason to extend them any slack on their IT competence.

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