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US government CIO warns of IT vendor cartel

US government CIO warns of IT vendor cartel

Vivek Kundra says open data sharing could threaten privacy and security

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In a wide ranging discussion Friday with President Barack Obama's top science advisers, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra warned of the dangers of open data access and complained of "an IT cartel" of vendors. He also believes the US can operate with just a few data centres.

Kundra, who is leaving his job in mid-August, offered a kaleidoscopic view of his concerns about federal IT in an appearance before President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Privacy threatened

In particular, Kundra is worried about the "mosaic effect," the unintended consequence of government data sharing, where data sets are combined and layered in ways that can strip away privacy and pose security threats.

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, where a lot of personal data is already available, government data that may have been "innocuous in the past" can be used to "identify people that may not want to be identified," Kundra said.

At this meeting, he was sharply critical of government IT contracting and told the committee "that we almost have an IT cartel within federal IT" that's made up of "very few companies" that benefit from government spending "because they understand the procurement process better than anyone else." Vendors are not winning contracts because they offer the best technology, Kundra claimed.

As federal CIO, Kundra has been an advocate for data sharing, a critic of big government vendor contracts and a believer in new technologies, particularly the cloud. He is leaving his job to take a fellowship at Harvard.

Kundra said the government knows "that true value lies at the intersection of multiple data sets" but he also realises that if data is released "without actually thinking about the national security implications," there could be issues.

As an example, Kundra said his office has been talking to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about data it was going to release and acknowledged a "very vigorous debate" around it, without revealing specifics.

"I think the privacy implications are very, very serious," Kundra said. "From a national security perspective what we've done is we've made sure that the NSC (National Security Council) is involved as we're vetting some of these critical data sets."

Big contract worries

Kundra was appointed two and half years ago by Obama as the nation's first government wide CIO. In taking that job in early 2009, he complained about big contract boondoggles and of contractors who end up "on the payroll indefinitely."

If Kundra was frustrated by his job of managing $80 billion (£50 billion) in federal IT annual spending, it may have been due to his inability to increase the mix of companies competing for federal work. "How do we get some of the most innovative companies, the most innovative people, to actually come in and compete for federal contracts?" said Kundra.

Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman and a member of the White House committee, asked Kundra why the federal government didn't try to get the same savings corporations do through standardisation.

"Does that model make sense to you? And if so, why does it not occur," Schmidt said. "In other words, is it because people want to have control over their own systems? Is it because of the way the funding works? Are there legitimate governmental reasons why such a standardised platform doesn't emerge?"

Kundra said the reason the federal system "defied logic" is partly due to how funding is allocated. There isn't a single committee in Congress devoted to technology, a committee "that's thinking about these issues horizontally," he said. The funding is appropriated bureau by bureau, said Kundra.

The government today has 12,000 major systems. Kundra said he has urged consolidation and cited initiatives such as the effort to cut the number of federal data centres. The government has some 2,000 facilities.

"My view is we should only have three major data centres across the entire US government," said Kundra.

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