Obama’s Top Advisor Warns of IT Cartel

In a broad discussion with President Barack Obama’s top science advisers, last Friday, federal CIO Vivek Kundra warned of the dangers of open data access and complained of “an IT cartel” of vendors.  At the meeting, he sharply criticized the US government’s 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.”

“I think the privacy implications are very, very serious.”

Vivek Kundra

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 Advisers on Science and Technology. 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 says.

“It’s not because they provide better technology,” Kundra says of the contractors.

(It might seem like he’s spent too much time in Europe, talking to EU bureaucrats…)

However, 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, Computerworld.com reports.

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

As an example, Kundra points to the fact that 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 highlights.

“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.”

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 in federal IT annual spending, it may have been due to his inability to increase the mix of companies competing for federal work, Computerworld.com writes.

“How do we get some of the most innovative companies, the most innovative people, to actually come in and compete for federal contracts?”  Kundra asks.

At the mentioned event, 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 standardization.

“Does that model [standardization] 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 standardized platform doesn’t emerge?”

Kundra answered that the reason the federal system of “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 explained. The funding is appropriated bureau by bureau, Kundra stated.

He also believes the US can operate with just a few data centers.

The US government  has today 12.000 major systems.

Kundra has urged consolidation, and cited initiatives such as the effort to cut the number of federal data centers.

The government of USA has about 2.000 data centers.

“My view is we should only have three major data centers across the entire US government,” the top White House adviser says.

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One response to “Obama’s Top Advisor Warns of IT Cartel

  1. I know Kundra’s language is a bit strong but I agree, we have IT cartels and syndicates but not just in the federal government – it is pervasive.