Saturday, April 02, 2011

Missiles, jets, and.... census data?

While the exact projects of defense contractors are shrouded in secrecy, one of Lockheed Martin's as of late has been quite public- in fact, it's a project more than 62 million people are participating in.

It's the UK's 2011 census.

In 2008, the US-based firm was awarded £150M (roughly $250M) to provide secure and accurate data capture and processing support services for the 2011 project, ranging from internet forms to handwriting extraction services. While it's not the first time the company has been involved in such endeavors- the firm did the 2005 test run of the Canadian census- it is certainly not without its critics. Facebook groups, petitions, tabloid posts and politicians have all popped up over recent weeks, with concerns ranging from profit-making to privacy invading. One paranoid article reminds its readers that this is the same Lockheed Martin whose staff were prosecuted for stealing President Obama’s student loan records and currently No. 1 on the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database . However, as far as I can tell, it looks as if 16/20 of the top defense contractors are on that list, big surprise there.

Most of the critics fear that the data - 32-pages per household- could be shared and/or stolen by the United States and its agencies under the Patriot Act. Detailed questions about ethnicity, visitors and religion (see the 2001 census form here, current version not yet available) make the US 2010 census forms look like a piece of cake.
The UK's Office for National Statistics promises the data will be safe, even though there have been inconsistent responses to the applicability of the Patriot Act by the ONS. Traditionally, US companies are subject to the Patriot Act, which allows the US government to access any data in a US-based company’s possession that can help in the fight against terrorism. This includes data owned by US-based companies, stored on servers located overseas.

an ONS spokesman said: "The contract for census processing was awarded to Lockheed Martin UK – not Lockheed Martin US – in August 2008. Lockheed Martin UK offered best value for money in an open procurement under European law and the EU procurement directives were satisfied ." In addition, the spokesman later noted that no Lockheed Martin staff (from either the US parent or UK company) will have access to the data. While that's certainly an answer to soothe some worried minds, it seems Lockheed may have trouble processing the data if no one has access to it!

So, in the end, no single statement has been issued by Lockheed and/or ONS to address the Patriot Act, privacy concerns and data security which, while bothersome for UK residents , may be good news for the US government.

It seems that the government of the United Kingdom was (innocently enough) trying to make the incredibly arduous process faster, easier and cheaper for its citizens. Here's a question for the rest of us, though: in a country where budget cuts and privatization are all the rage, how would a Lockheed-run census be received US ?

(Image from Guardian UK)

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