Journalism in the Public Interest

Obama Administration Denies Appeal for Information on Contract with Smartronix

The Smartronix contract. Nearly half of the pages in the technical proposal (outlined in red in the graphic above) are blacked out. (Dan Nguyen/ProPublica)
The Obama administration has refused, once and for all, to reveal the full details of its contract with Smartronix for a new version of, the government’s stimulus information clearinghouse, as well as a sophisticated “data warehouse," which typically allows users to store and analyze large amounts of data.

In July, the administration agreed to pay Smartronix, a Maryland-based company, up to $18 million to create what it called 2.0. The seemingly rich contract got wide attention

However, when ProPublica filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the contract, the General Services Administration responded, a month later, by releasing a heavily redacted version. (Take a look.) Nearly half the pages in the contract’s technical proposal, which is the main body of the document, were redacted completely, and of the remaining pages, many had half or more of their content blacked out.

We appealed the GSA’s decision, noting the administration’s commitment to transparency in general, and its promises of transparency in the stimulus in particular. We also wondered whether the arguments used to defend the redactions — especially the prohibition against the release of proprietary information — appropriately covered the sweeping redactions.

On Monday, nearly eight weeks after we sent our appeal, the GSA responded, denying our appeal, citing the same arguments against the release of "proprietary or trade secret information."

Click on thumbnail below to see the page in our document viewer



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While I am a fan of Propublica in general, this article is truly unimpressive.  Redacting doesn’t even begin until more than a 1/3 of the way through the document.

Everything (yes, everything) redacted can easily be explained by security and company proprietary information.  Hackers would love to have the technical details of what software products the site uses, or the structure of the architecture, or management structure for social engineering.  Competitors would love to see what rates were proposed or how many resources are supporting the site.

Sorry, but this is the kind of article I would expect to see on Fox News.

The article states that the redacted areas are concentrated in the technical proposal, which is a subsection of the entire contract:

And security through obscurity is not considered to be a strong software strategy. Most major sites are secure not because their actual technical details are unknown, but because known vulnerabilities have been patched.

This is exactly the kind of article I have come to expect from ProPublica. It’s important that readers see firsthand the limits of the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency, and the graphic does great service in this regard. ProPublica is distinguished not only by quality in analysis but also by providing readers the original data and material we need to critically evaluate our government’s performance and also media coverage too. I’m not sure that Fox News is committed to either critical thinking or casting a close watch on media reportage.

Aside from what I see being a proposal, not a contract, I am befuddled slightly by the volume of redaction in light of the point made on page 57; “In order to bring this emphasis on transparency, accountability, and the public interest to directly, the Sunlight Foundation is willing to advise Team Smartronix on transparency and the tremendous multiplier effect available to RATB of opening up to third-party developers.” Other things befuddle me also but I no longer have to read this material so I will cease.  We used to call some of the terms seen above, and in this document as a whole, ‘weasel words’.

At the same time, we the people invested a good deal of trust in mountebanks, cut-purses, and the criminally intentioned (and maybe even some honest persons)to arrive at this financial state in the first place.  A little more trust is hardly going to result in the end of any more institutions I suspect.

FOX?  News?  They would get a headache using the brain cells needed to unbutton one’s slacks.

Security through obscurity remains an important component.  If you are involved in any kind of federal security review, it does get noted as a vulnerability.  Just because you keep everything patched doesn’t mean it’s okay to advertise what you are using…you don’t give the hackers information to refine their approach.  Security is *much* more than one or two secure concepts (look up NIST Special Publication 800-53 for more information).

The reason I draw my analogy to Fox News is that this article lacks depth and critical thinking as to why the information was redacted (just like Fox News).  The *only* things redacted are for security (as I’ve explained above) and vendor competitive reasons.  The majority of the content is intact.  What exactly does the author of the article think is being hidden?  The technical details are boring to most people anyways; the context of the contract is there for all to read.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Eye on the Stimulus

Eye on the Stimulus

Officials have struggled to spend the nearly $800 billion stimulus package quickly and effectively.

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