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Inside the Air Force
Reposted With Permission
December 3, 2004

Terrorism, data-sharing agreements cited


By Cynthia Di Pasquale

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has announced it plans to remove its entire class of aeronautical data from public access by Oct. 1, 2005, citing the need to uphold data-sharing agreements with foreign governments and protect the integrity of electronic data. The possibility that terrorists could use the information to cause harm is also a concern.

Documents produced by the agency for the Defense Department, and now available for public distribution through the the Federal Aviation Administration, include flight information publications (FLIPs), digital aeronautical flight information files (DAFIFs), and navigation and planning charts. The documents are used by aviators, the commercial mapping industry, and unintended users such as school teachers and librarians.

Beginning next October, these will be available exclusively to DOD customers, according to a Nov. 18 Federal Register notice.

The agency cited the following reasons for withdrawing the documents:

NGA's sweeping removal of aeronautical documents follows what some government access experts consider a growing trend since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In October 2001, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency shut down portions of its Web site to purge public documents from its online library. More recently, draft versions of the FY-05 defense authorization bill included a provision to restrict large portions of unclassified satellite imagery from Freedom of Information Act disclosure.

This most recent general restriction of documents was mainly spurred by an interest in preserving data-sharing agreements with foreign countries, according to NGA spokesman Jim Mohan.

Like the U.S. government, other nations increasingly rely on commercial or quasi-governmental agencies to collect and publish aeronautical data. This data is shared with NGA for producing maps.

But "some of these foreign agencies are beginning to assert intellectual property rights to the aeronautical data within their territorial limits and are refusing to provide such aeronautical data to DOD so long as NGA makes it available to outside interests, whom these agencies view as possible competitors in the international marketplace," according to the Federal Register announcement.

AirServices Australia (ASA), contracted by the Australian government, recently withdrew from a bilateral exchange agreement because data it charged for in its home country was made available for free in the United States, Mohan said. The company is engaged in a civil lawsuit with Boeing-Jeppesen, an American producer of commercial air navigation data, over copyright and royalty issues. Boeing-Jeppesen used data produced by NGA.

Additionally, Navigation Canada, an organization similar to ASA, refuses to provide Canada's aeronautical information in electronic format for the same reason.

As more nations privatize aeronautical information, NGA expects other countries to limit access unless the agency changes its policy, Mohan said.

He also highlighted another concern that data available electronically on a Web site is at risk of being corrupted by hackers. The DOD Web site is hacked regularly, he said, and NGA's has been at least once.

Aeronautical data similar to what NGA produces will still be available to the public through the FAA or commercial vendors, Mohan said, but activists and commercial interests remain wary.

"It's always worrisome when an entire category of public documents is removed from public access," said Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "And the idea of secret maps, in particular, has a Soviet ring to it. . . . There's something literally un-American about it."

Aftergood conceded NGA has a valid concern regarding data-sharing agreements, but suggested the agency renegotiate the terms of use with foreign countries and commercial vendors. Possible solutions, short of completely withdrawing data from the public domain, could include charging fees or signing licensing agreements, he said.

As for NGA's claims that the integrity of aeronautical data on its Web site may be at risk, Aftergood considered that an overreaction to a perceived threat that could easily be mitigated by backing up files and improving security. He also dismissed the objective of limiting access to terrorists.

"Somehow we've made it through quite a number of years without suffering any ill effects of this policy," he said. "So at some point it's not longer sufficient to wave your arms in the air and utter the word terrorism to justify this kind of secrecy."

Aftergood added that there are competing interests at stake, but the public interest is being slighted. He hopes NGA will reconsider its planned actions.

Industry executive Kent Lee said he believes NGA's true concern is the data-sharing agreements with foreign countries and commercial vendors in the United States, rather than other reasons listed in the Federal Register announcement. Lee is president and CEO of East View Cartographic, a Minneapolis-based vendor of maps and related products. The company has worked as an NGA subcontractor and digitizes and reprocesses agency maps for sale to users.

As a reaction to the Australian government's withholding of data, NGA's heavy-handed response was to take products out of the public domain, Lee opined. But adding a notice to agency documents that some elements are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission would solve the problem, he said.

He also chastised the agency for its veiled reference to the global war on terrorism as a reason for classifying the aeronautical charts.

"It's a big, big carpet bomb approach," Lee said. "If some products shouldn't be out there for security reasons, that's a separate question. Also, if the justification is terrorism, that sets an Orwellian precedent for pulling maps out of public libraries and imposing restrictions on the types of geographic data NGA produces," he added.

Lee is working with the American Library Association on a public campaign against what he considers one of the largest withdrawals of public documents in recent history.

Organizers are in the process of drafting comments to send to NGA and the appropriate congressional oversight committees, according to Patrice McDermott, associate director of the ALA. Her organization represents a number of depository and map librarians with an interest in ensuring public access to government documents.

Removal of aeronautical documents will be followed-up by removal of nautical and possibly topographical and digital information, Lee said. But NGA's Mohan emphasized that while the agency is reviewing its distribution policy on all types of data it produces, there are no plans to withdraw anything but aeronautical information from the public domain.

The public may be impacted by NGA's actions, Mohan said, but there are other venues through which it can obtain that data. The agency is focused on producing aeronautical data for its primary customer, DOD, and private-sector access is a secondary concern, he added. -- Cynthia Di Pasquale

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