get involved," said Jerry Johnson, a senior policy analyst at the Texas Department of Information Resources. "Lawyers are going to be very careful about what they say [in the policy] because if you say one thing and yet that information can be disclosed, you could be liable."

Big Picture

From a broader perspective, Johnson said the Internets ability to instantly deliver information on nearly any subject forces government agencies to rethink the ground rules for releasing public information.

Thanks to the Web, its now easy to assemble combinations of data that may have serious security implications, he said. For example, cities and counties have begun posting property tax information. Some local Web sites also list permits issued for various home improvements, including the installation of security systems. Theres even talk among localities about posting construction diagrams online.

"If they do all of that, I can search for the most expensive homes, see the building diagrams, check if they have a security system and figure out the best way to break in," Johnson said. "[Agencies] may not think of any of that data as being sensitive when viewed by that single application. But now I can start creating a more definitive picture of an individual based on what I was able to access at the local level, state level and federal level."

Although this information traditionally has been available to the public, getting your hands on it generally meant going to a government office and waiting in line for a paper copy. The Web eliminates those physical barriers, delivering the data to users in a matter of minutes.

"Theres always been a move in America to make government as open as possible for accountability, but how do we balance the public good and the right to know with the privacy of the individual?" Johnson asked.

Government also must reconsider whether it needs all of the citizen data it collects, he said. Johnson and others recommend that agencies eliminate requests for unneeded information when they redesign paper forms for e-government applications.

"The interesting thing is now a lot of the forms are being modified not to eliminate information but to add information, such as e-mail addresses," he said. "We have to start rethinking what is the minimum essential information necessary to conduct a transaction and not collect more than is absolutely necessary."

Building Trust

The public sectors ability to construct effective privacy policies may factor greatly in the widespread acceptance of electronic government. Privacy and the closely related issue of data security have sparked growing public concern.

A study released last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 46 percent of Internet users lacked confidence that their online activities are private. Only 10 percent of respondents were "very confident" that the things they do online are private and will not be used by others without permission.

Addressing these concerns will be vital to electronic governments success, said Germain. "E-government cannot move forward unless people are convinced that their transactions will be secure and confidential. We want e-government to go forward, but we have to make sure that people feel confident enough to use it."

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.