Accentuate the Negative

tshoop@govexec.com

Okay class, it's time for a pop quiz. First, a little background. Two years ago, the General Accounting Office reported on what it said were "serious weaknesses" in computer security at five Internal Revenue Service facilities. Among other problems, GAO noted, the IRS couldn't account for 6,400 magnetic tapes that might contain sensitive taxpayer data.

Last year, GAO went back to see what the IRS had done to fix the situation. Auditors found that in a year's time, the IRS had dealt with 63 percent of the weaknesses discussed in the previous report. And by the time GAO's report came out in December, the IRS said it had addressed another 12 percent of the problems.

The new report made it clear that GAO still had found security weaknesses, including some the auditors could not make public. But they concluded the IRS "is making significant progress to improve computer security over its facilities."

Now for the quiz: Which of the following was the headline that appeared on the story that went out over the Associated Press wire the day the report was released?

A. "IRS Makes Strides in Improving Computer Security"
B. Audit Finds Lack of Computer Security Puts Taxpayer Data at Risk"

Most of you will probably not be surprised to learn that the correct answer is B.

"Chronic weaknesses in the IRS computer system are putting sensitive personal information about taxpayers at risk of improper uses, including theft and fraud," the AP reported in a story that was made available to newspapers across the country and posted on hundreds of Web sites. The story highlighted the fact that the IRS couldn't locate 397 computer tapes, without noting the 6,400 figure from the year before.

Why the doomsday spin? It would be easy to chalk it up to relentless media negativity and anti-government bias. But it's actually more complicated than that. Three factors help explain why this story and others like it are played the way they are in the papers, on TV and on the Web.

The long arm of the investigator. GAO's reports are meticulously researched, rigorously reviewed and reported in dispassionate, nonpartisan terms. But the agency is the investigative arm of Congress, empowered to look into any issue that involves the disbursement of public funds. Given this role, it's hardly surprising that GAO auditors rarely produce reports that paint agencies in glowing terms.

Even in those instances when it reaches largely positive conclusions, GAO tends to hedge its bets. The title of the December report on the IRS is a great example: "IRS Systems Security: Although Significant Improvements Made, Tax Processing and Data Still at Risk."

Spin, spin, spin. Members of Congress, on the other hand, rarely sit on the fence when it comes to interpreting GAO's work. And since GAO reports usually don't make their way into the public eye unless a Senator or Representative releases them to the media, what the politicians think has a big effect on how the press plays GAO's findings.

The IRS report was released by Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who made it clear he thought its conclusions were cause for alarm.

"The IRS is leaving the door open for computer hackers to target taxpayers' Social Security and financial information," Thompson said in a press release. "Personal information on IRS computers is at risk of unauthorized disclosure, destruction or modification, and most alarmingly, to identity theft." Note the multiple hot buttons-hackers, Social Security, financial information, personal information, identity theft-pushed in just two sentences.

A higher standard. The AP largely bought Thompson's spin on the report. But that doesn't necessarily mean that its reporter simply wanted to cast the agency in a bad light, or assumed that no one would want to read a story about a federal agency improving its operations.

Media organizations have long taken the view that in representing the public's interest, they must hold the government to the highest possible standards. In a case like this, it's fairly easy to see why.

The IRS may have done a terrific job in a short period of time fixing the vast majority of its systems security problems. But it still couldn't account for nearly 400 computer tapes likely to be loaded with sensitive information. And it isn't really unfair to suggest that the only acceptable number of missing tapes is zero.

There's no quicker way to light a fire under an agency than to give it bad press. Following the 1997 GAO report, and the negative media coverage that accompanied it, the IRS swiftly moved to create an Office of Systems Standards and Evaluation. The office includes more than 60 security, privacy and computer experts, Brian Friel noted in a report for GovExec.com.

Obviously, the IRS is now bending over backward to make sure it has no security holes whatsoever the next time GAO comes around. And that's not a bad thing-even though if the IRS succeeds, you'll probably never read about it.

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