Uncle Sam's info-tech crisis

Friday, 12 July 2002, 12:02 AM EST

In the wake of September 11, the federal government's technology infrastructure is not only backward but may also be downright dangerous. Any doubts about that were cleared up by with FBI Director Robert Mueller's recent testimony before the Senate. Mueller revealed that the bureau was unable to search through its electronic documents using anything but single terms. Searching for something as simple as, say, "flight schools" in agent files would confuse the computer -- even though such search capability has long been the available to anyone who staggers into an Internet cafe from Delhi to Des Moines.

What's the problem? The FBI -- and much of the rest of the federal government -- has unwisely chosen to build its technology atop specialized software that's hard to use and expensive to maintain and update. Staying out of the commercial-software loop, where malicious hackers share information about programs' vulnerabilities on the Internet, was an effort to maintain security through obscurity.

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