Federal agencies pull Web content
By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
Because of heightened security concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, federal agencies are pulling public information off their Web sites.
From the gigantic Environmental Protection Agency to the tiny National Imagery and Mapping Agency, information that was once freely available now is being curtailed -- although some of it remains accessible in other forms.
Nothing like this happened during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which predated the Internet boom. The security concerns generated by the terrorist attacks may forever change the way people regard that free information, said Winn Schwartau, a nationally known Internet security expert from Seminole.
Before the attacks, he said, everyone liked putting lots of information on Web sites. "Now the question that's going to be asked a lot is, "Why should we make this information so easily available?' " said Schwartau, author of Information Warfare.
EPA officials have pulled the plug on a database of disaster plans filed by 14,000 chemical plants and industrial facilities around the country. The plans were intended to provide the communities in which the plants are located with information about what could happen should there be a disaster.
Click on that Web site now, though, and a "Not Found" notice pops up.
"Intuitively we took that down the day of the attacks," said Tina Kreisher, EPA communications director.
The Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety has pulled from its Web site a map showing the 1.9-million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines that crisscross the country. Unlike other agencies, DOT officials posted an explanation for the move.
"Recent events have focused additional security concerns on critical infrastructure systems," the DOT Web site says. From now on, DOT "is providing pipeline data to pipeline operators and local, state, and federal government officials only."
An arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Agency for Toxic Disease Substances and Registry, yanked a report on chemical plants and terrorism off its Web site, although the report makes no mention of specific factories. Agency spokesmen did not return calls.
The National Imagery and Mapping Agency stopped selling large-scale digital maps to the public through its Web site and turned off the search engine on its Web site that allowed customers to download maps from its archives.
"They are being temporarily held to give us a chance to look at them," NIMA spokeswoman Joan Mears said, noting that officials fear they could be used by terrorists.
Despite the federal agencies' efforts, some of the information they have pulled still is available, either in cached form or from other sources. For instance, the Right to Know Network provides access to the summary of the chemical plants' disaster plans, which do not include detailed information.
Limiting the flow of information "is how totalitarian societies operate," said Gary Bass, executive director of the company that operates the Right to Know Network. "While security may improve, the spirit of civil society is lost."
He said no federal official has asked his organization to change its Web site and called EPA's decision to shut down the entire database an overreaction.
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which contains information from Investor's Business Daily.
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