Privatizing Information and Information Technology - Whose Life is it Anyway?

23 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2003 Last revised: 22 Feb 2010

Date Written: April 2, 2003


Federal agencies plan to outsource 33% of their information technology projects in 2003. In addition, much of the management and collection of personal data by state and federal government agencies has been outsourced.

Recent events have demonstrated that this information has enormous value, economically and politically. Identity theft is on the rise, and information collected and retained by the government can be used to perpetrate this crime. In addition, other information - home addresses and phone numbers, spouse's names, children's names, schools, and social security numbers, email addresses, information about past employment and education, health records and disciplinary actions - whole lives and their intimate details are maintained by the government.

A terrorist would rejoice in such great fortune. This information could be used for nefarious purposes such as identity theft to support terrorist projects. Even more worrying is the possibility for blackmail to gain access to and control over government employees. The December 2002 theft of hard drives from TriWest, a contractor providing health care services for the military, has left over half a million service men and women and their families vulnerable and our national security breached.

Also in December 2002, it was found that Ptech, a software developer for critical federal agencies, was funded by individuals with terrorist connections.

Once out of the government's sole control, opportunities for access multiply. Information can and does make its way around the world with the speed of light. Every time information is transferred there is an opportunity to divert it. And, given the nature of information in electronic form, diversion may be hard to detect.

Despite what we have learned recently about how critical information technology is, how easily it can be misused - and how expensive that misuse can be - both federal and state governments are pursuing a course of privatizing information that seems to know no bounds. Private companies now have contracts to provide a wide range of services that involve generating and collecting highly personal information, including social and mental health services; education, medication and psychiatric services; unemployment benefits processing; accounting and information technology; legal services; permit application, payment of taxes or fines, and car registration. Add to these, contracts that relate more directly to IT services. The Treasury Department has contracted out its information technology services, including networks, LANs, desktop computer setups, help desk support, and system administration. Pennsylvania announced that it would consolidate and outsource all its agencies' data centers. Connecticut said it wanted to turn over all its IT functions to the private sector, because information technology was not seen as a core government function.

This transfer of important functions from public to private control should be at the center of national debate. It affects our national security, our personal security, and our finances. Yet there has been deafening silence - except for those who cheerlead every movement from public to private control. The time has come for national debate on this issue.

JEL Classification: H1, H4

Suggested Citation

Dannin, Ellen, Privatizing Information and Information Technology - Whose Life is it Anyway? (April 2, 2003). John Marshall Journal of Computer & Information Law, Vol. 22, p. 375, 2004, Available at SSRN: or

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