GPO safeguards information from hackers, theft

The Government Printing Office (GPO) is taking steps to ensure that the information it collects stays safe from hackers and contamination.

Many important federal documents and reports are now produced in solely digital form. Under one new measure, the Public Key Infrastructure initiative, each digital federal document received by the GPO comes with a digital signature of authenticity.

The GPO is also studying new technology being developed by cryptographers that would require an additional check through a set of calculations, further verifying the authenticity of a federal document.

And the agency will soon begin version-tracking — a process that time-stamps a document when it’s received by the GPO, effectively tagging that specific version to its data, said Mike Walsh, the GPO’s chief technical officer and co-director of innovation and new technology.

According to Veronica Meter, communications officer for the GPO, half of all federal documents released over the last few months were born digital, meaning that there was never a tangible printed copy.

The agency had started to reform its data-collecting procedures even before recent public concern surfaced over identity theft and loss of information at financial institutions.

Meanwhile, some library advocacy groups are expressing concern that the agency is not working fast enough and that important information has already been irreparably lost.

“There is a risk that many government agencies might take [their documents] down” from their websites, said Patrice McDermott, deputy director for the American Library Association Office of Government Relations. “The issue is if they are removing documents for a good reason or for political reasons. … We have so much information, we don’t know what is and what’s not being saved.”

Walsh said that the GPO is aware agencies are posting reports on their websites but that it is taking steps to collect that information.

He said the GPO has begun a process called harvesting, a system that collects relevant information from a government agency website and sends it directly to the GPO.

Walsh said that, in the future, “we want to develop a system that would be simple and painless” for government agencies and officials to send the information themselves.

The GPO has also begun discussing a disaster-recovery plan, creating multiple digital copies as well as a tangible backup to preserve important information.

The library advocacy groups questioned recent remarks made by Judith C. Russell, the GPO superintendent of documents, which hinted at a limitation on the number of tangible public documents available at federal depository libraries.

“As more and more government documents are made available electronically and people choose to access these products digitally, there have been fewer requirements for printed publications,” Russell said in a subsequent statement that modified her original comments.

“We have made it a priority to increase the access to government information electronically, while at the same time working side by side with our library partners in the Federal Depository Library program to establish what should be kept in print.”

Walsh said, “We are going through a very methodical process, and when we [finish], we will have a system of implementation that will authenticate and preserve more and more government documents.”