Labor Department tries a new way of releasing sensitive jobs data

By Charles S. Clark

July 6, 2012

Friday’s much-anticipated monthly employment numbers were released to the news media without premature leaks or software snafus, even as the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics had begun phasing in some controversial new security procedures.

“Everything went smoothly and uneventfully, with business as usual,” said Jennifer Kaplan, Labor’s director of media and editorial services.

For the past several months, the department has been preparing a new set of protocols governing the print and broadcast media lock-ups, which are secure facilities where reporters are allowed a half-hour’s time to digest and interpret the politically and financially sensitive employment numbers before the embargo lifts -- at 8:30 a.m. EDT in the case of Friday’s release.

In June, several representatives of news organizations complained in testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the proposed new restrictions on journalists using their own computers and software on the premises while massaging the fresh data would hamper their ability to rapidly present the numbers in context.

House Republicans combined the news media’s concerns with their own suspicions that the Obama administration might be exaggerating the number of green jobs the economy has created.

Subsequent negotiations produced some alterations to Labor’s planned data security updates, some of which were in effect during Friday’s release but will not be fully phased in until Sept. 5, allowing for a period of testing.

The final procedures gave some ground to the media on Labor’s previous insistence that all reporters use only government-provided equipment and software.

Under the compromise, says a Labor fact sheet, “news organizations may choose to use the department’s equipment, use privately owned equipment, or use a combination of government and private equipment. Privately owned equipment must meet certain requirements. News organizations, for example, must purchase directly from the manufacturer or an authorized reseller of the purchase directly from the manufacturer or an authorized reseller of the manufacturer, and the equipment must be shipped directly from the manufacturer to the department. Any hardware acquired by the news organizations for use in the lock-up facility is subject to inspection upon arrival to ensure it complies with agreed-upon specifications.” Reporters may not bring personal electronic devices into the lock-ups.

The purpose of the procedures is to “protect the integrity of the process by which important national economic data are released,” Labor said, while making sure that reporters do not accidentally or purposefully transmit data that could give some investors an advantage before the uniform release time.

Effective July 6, Labor said, “credentialed news reporters will sign a new embargo agreement upon entry to the lock-up facilities. Should a reporter violate the terms of the embargo agreement or any of the department’s lock-up procedures, the department, at its discretion, may impose a sanction against the reporter and/or the reporter’s news organization, including immediately barring the reporter or the organization from entering the lock-up facility, either temporarily or permanently.”

The contract also states that “participation in DoL lock-ups is an opportunity, not a right.”

The new system will undergo third-party audits as well as daily vulnerability assessments and regular testing by the department’s security division. After the new system is fully installed, a larger review will be conducted by Sandia National Laboratories, whose 2011 review of the existing system prompted the new approach.

By Charles S. Clark

July 6, 2012