Citizens should be wary of how government might use or lose their individual private information.
A review by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance, Evaluation, Expenditure and Review (PEER) has found several problems with the way state agencies handle confidential information. While there are a number of protective practices that should be put in place, this is not a problem that can be addressed by bandaid reform. It’s a problem that is cooked into the DNA of government itself.
The expansion of government into nearly all areas of influence creates chaos, destroys natural incentives and twists the all-important individual decisions and motives that determine the value of goods and services in a free society. We often hear politicians refer to the idea that government can be a ‘force for good’ and talk about ‘government efficiency’. These are both clever sounding phrases, but neither are true of how government actually works.
Government is force of power. It is a tool. In that sense, it is incapable of being ‘good’ or ‘efficient’, as both of those terms are subjective and impossible to quantify.
PEER began investigating the records practices of several agencies after the Sun Herald reported that thousands of pages of sensitive personal information had been found on the Bay St. Louis bridge back in May.
Actually, using the word “found” may not be the best way to describe what happened. One driver who helped collect some of the records described a scene where “the sky fill with white papers that soon flew into to her windshield, prompting her to pull over.”
She told the Sun Herald: “There were so many of them. It almost caused two accidents because people couldn’t see where they were driving.”
The records were traced back to the defunct Gulf Coast Community Action Agency (GCCAA), a non profit social services agency that had operated in Hancock, Harrison, Stone, George and Greene counties for nearly 50-years. The agency closed in 2015 when it lost its federal funding after several reports of teachers abusing children at the organizations Head Start centers. GCCAA was also the focus of Dept of Justice and FBI investigations back in mid-2014 that resulted in three indictments.
A question state officials should be finding the answer to for taxpayers is ‘Why is a former non-profit agency with a history of gross mismanagement, bribery and abuse of children being allowed to keep citizens confidential information?’
The scattered records included official copies of birth certificates and Social Security cards of adults and children, copies of driver’s licenses and state IDs, bank account statements and utility bills, as well as documents from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency, various courts and an organization called ROMA.
The agency was supposed to hand the records over to the Department of Human Services under a closeout agreement, and GCCAA reported in April of 2016 that it had done so. It wasn’t until the records were found blowing across the bridge that DHS learned GCCAA hadn’t complied with the agreement.
PEER Suggests Giving Dept. Of Archives And History (MDAH) Enforcement Power
At the Legislature’s request, PEER reviewed practices at 13 state entities and universities under the authority of the Institutes of Higher Learning. PEER issued a report on November 2 that found that while the Department of Archives and History is supposed to oversee management of confidential records, it has no way of punishing agencies who do not comply with the proper procedures.
It also found that:
The rules and regulations for records that aren’t covered by federal law often do not follow recognized best practices. Those rules and regulations also contain gaps in security procedures, PEER found.
The entities and universities often collect more confidential information than necessary. For example, many record full Social Security number rather than the last four digits, which is sufficient for identification.
The agency schedules for retaining the records date back to when all records were on paper, and the shift to electronic data collection has made those schedules outdated. The state doesn’t have uniform agreements for sharing data, doesn’t properly verify when records are destroyed or the confidential information in them is scrubbed and data is sometimes transmitted electronically in a manner that isn’t secure.
The PEER report recommends the Legislature require agencies to use more uniform practices and agreements and give the MDAH the power to enforce them. It says agencies should be required to ensure that confidential data is retained, destroyed or removed in an appropriate manner. PEER said MDAH and the Department of Information Technology Services should work together to ensure that requirements for retention, destruction or removal of data is incorporated into policies and standards and recommends it work with judicial and legislative staff to determine which, if any, laws need to be amended to help ensure records are properly handled.
The 13 entities studied are:
Board of Cosmetology
Board of Dental Examiners
Board of Examiners for Licensed Professional Counselors
Board of Optometry
Department of Health
Department of Human Services
Department of Information Technology Services
Department of Insurance
Department of Rehabilitation Services
Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks
Division of Medicaid
Public Employees’ Retirement System
Real Estate Commission
State universities under IHL authority: Alcorn State University, Delta State University, Jackson State University, Mississippi State University, Mississippi University for Women, Mississippi Valley State University, The University of Mississippi, The University of Southern Mississippi
Government Bureaucracy Has No Incentive To Honestly And Efficiently Analyze Or Secure Confidential Data Over Time.
What lies at the heart of the problems listed by PEER is what is inherent in all bureaucracy, especially within government. Without active pressure exerted to force the organizations and agencies to secure this sensitive information, it simply won’t get done. But worse, due to the sensitive nature of the data, it becomes even more valuable as a target of dishonorable, even criminal, actions to obtain it and use it.
In a state government so thoroughly corrupt as Mississippi’s, the pressure to secure the data must be comprehensive. It must restrict government to very specific rules, including the requirement that the data only be used for very specific reasons. Otherwise, not only will the data be unsecured — as we see in the case of GCCAA it was literally, tossed to the wind — this confidential, personal information will be used in ways by government bureaucracy to further insulate and protect political actions and taxpayer funding of those actions from public scrutiny. The data will be used to rule against and over people, not for them and certainly not with their best interests in mind.
This is made even more obvious by the recent actions within state government to hide the details of contracts and financial deals. The lack of transparency exhibited by the Transparency Mississippi website isn’t just ironic its evidentiary. The youth courts have been allowed to keep from parents the records the government maintains on their own children. Only in the past year have state lawmakers done anything to address the abuses of law enforcement agencies, many which were not even creating public records of the seizure of private property. And now, with the additional data being collected on students in the public school system the government is getting an earlier start on monitoring and manipulating citizens. So, why on earth would the general public trust these politically driven bureaucrats with sensitive personal information?
As in all of what happens or doesn’t happen in Mississippi’s government, the level of protection an individual can expect against government overreach depends upon who you know and in which group of people you are classified to be. That, above all, determines whether one has a say in how the government runs and how their personal information is used.
Legislative hearings more often than not set aside the truly substantive discussion of an agencies role in breeding weaknesses opting for the easier subdued, bread-crumbs of inefficiency. A government agencies unstated cause is to show the consistent existence of complications and needs over which they have been given dominion to administer corrective measures.
Agencies need money to operate whether they are doing a good job of it or not. It would seem that the best time to determine if they are successfully working towards accomplishing the mission would be during Legislative budget hearings every year. But lawmakers aren’t appointed to this joint committee to ask questions and investigate job performance. They rarely question a programs effectiveness, or an administrators ability to meet goals. Likewise, the public never hears about a program “ending” because the agency employees completed the agencies mission.
The reasons behind this is quite basic to any and all government. Government by definition lacks a standard of measurability. In other words, government epitomizes inefficiency. Inefficiency isn’t just a symptom of poor bureaucratic management. Inefficiency is bureaucratic management, and by virtue of the characteristics which define it, bureaucracy is inefficiency.
This is probably best understood by studying the uniquely different ways administrative government and free market enterprise adapts to the organizational environments in which services are provided, and the ways these entities seek to survive within an organized system.
Free market enterprise over time will seek survival by creating more innovative products or services to fit the demands of specific needs. Administrative government, on the other hand, either maintains a monopoly or works to install and protect a monopoly. Politicians entrenched in poltical party horse-trading do their part to help goverment bureaucracy survive by lowering protections of private property, incentivizing participation or even requiring it. Government need not spend time innovating when it can compel participation through the force of law, and by imposing regulations and penalties on the outside free market enterprises who would approach the task with the mindset of solving problems.
When a ‘best fit’ for a needed service or product is not available, the free market enterprise will seek to meet the demand by reshaping it’s production to aid in serving changing needs within the community.
However, the ‘best fit’ option is not conducive to how administrative government runs. In those cases administrative government will often seek to reshape the community needs to fit what the administrative government is already producing, or impose restrictions on any potential competition and put them at a disadvantage. This type of government regulation of the market over the course of months and years leads to reductions in overall economic liberty, negatively affecting the trade of other types of goods and services. And this is where Mississippi finds itself today.
It is these government manipulations of market forces that bureaucrats use as a way to provide themselves an advantage. By ensuring authority over specific details rests within administrative government, they keep hidden the ways regulation over time has discouraged broader participation and reduce the overall level of market activity. The freedom loving, hard-working, courageous citizen who once had the fire of inspiration in them to create a new business, or a new innovative product, is being replaced. Today, they are consistently met with regulatory and bureaucratic road blocks at every turn until they give up. They just stop trying.
It is because of these reasons that it’s difficult to accept with confidence an assessment from administrative government, or any other controlled system. It is equally just as difficult to expect the long-term performance of administrative government to properly secure the confidential data they have at their disposal.
For government bureaucracy to survive it needs to manipulate the analysis of data in ways to show the need for it’s continued expansion. Looking closely at the outcomes of the government’s actual performance is rare, because it threatens the administrative bureaucracies existence. This protectionism is the way governments provide special favors and rewards themselves and special interests.
Just like the clouds of paper of published data GCCAA carelessly let fly on the Bay St. Louis Bridge, it is far less of a need to secure when:
- The system is no longer providing any incentive for the organization or agency to protect the data as a resource (Loss of federal funds).
- The system doesn’t provide any incentive for the organization or agency to show a measure of success in meeting the assigned challenges (No competition from innovative or more efficient competition in the market space, or because of a prior established contract renewal for the services to be performed results in guaranteed income or appropriations).
The less an incentive for accomplishment to promote best practices, then the less focused and productively invested workers will be in a preferred outcome. At that point, government bureaucracy exists to protect and promote the further expansion of government bureaucracy.
That is where Mississippians find our government today; far more concerned with the next appropriation than the results they are creating through their work. Allowing agencies to keep citizens personal data for any length of time beyond what is necessary for direct individual assistance only allows ample opportunity for it to be compromised.
An agency-contracted or sponsored research project has a tendency to begin with an unrepresentative sample because of the heightened perception of similarities that turn out not to exist. This leads then to a number of other calculations that are further and further from representing the truth. If this information is used to support agency budgeting or hiring decisions it can lead to faulty conclusions with real-world financial consequences.
Any manipulation of the data put to work alongside the current tools of an agency that helps government bureaucrats twist a lie that squeezes more money from another round of appropriation of taxpayers funds is adding insult to injury.