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Vigilance Required for New York Government Employees

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Chelsea Binns
June 26, 2015

New York government employees are under siege in the 21st century. From the scourge of public corruption, to the threat of agency data breaches, these public servants face constant reputational risk and security challenges. While the recent proliferation of data breaches is especially concerning, experts are recommending that employees remain vigilant, which may serve to reduce the likelihood of these events.

The recent federal employee data breach, disclosed by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), exemplifies today’s unique risk to government employees. This breach may have affected “all federal workers,” which could mean as many as 14 million past and present public servants, including federal employees in New York. The personal information of these victims was compromised, for presumably nefarious reasons, which are speculated to include punishment, blackmail or spy recruitment.

This case has raised a dialogue about the opportunities for government employees to increase their level of vigilance. Recommendations have included increasing individual user awareness and cyber security proficiency.

It is possible that employees may unwittingly contribute to data breaches by mishandling agency data. For instance, it was reported the stolen federal data might not have been encrypted. This fact has started a debate among experts. While some argue that the failure to encrypt the subject data was an “abysmal failure on the part of the agency,” others say encryption would not “guarantee protection.” Nevertheless, the OPM is reportedly increasing their use of encryption, following this breach.

Similarly, a review of past government data breaches, reported by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, suggests that workers have often unknowingly contributed to data thefts. In fact, in many of the reported breaches affecting New York City government, workers leaked sensitive information by “accident” via email, “discarded” it in plain view or had it “lost” or “stolen” from them. In one case, the Social Security numbers of 8,400 homeless persons were accidentally emailed to several parties. In another case, files containing Social Security numbers and birth dates of public housing residents were inexplicably found discarded in the street. The agency said these discarded files should have been shredded.

To address the problem of corruption in New York, employees and citizens alike are actively seeking opportunities to increase their vigilance. In a Civic Conversation earlier this year, featuring Attorney General (AG) Eric T. Schneiderman, New Yorkers gathered to discuss the issue of corruption in New York and potential reform. In his speech, AG Schneiderman discussed the infamous history of corruption in New York, with Albany as “the nation’s most consistent epicenter of public corruption, since the days of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, through Roosevelt and right up until today.”

Nevertheless, the answer to the question of the evening, “Can New Yorkers Fix Albany’s Corruption Problem?” was “yes.” While corruption will never be completely eradicated, it was clear that improvement is possible. Panelists Richard Briffault, Hon. Richard Brodsky and Jennifer Rodgers, espoused the potential for New York citizens and employees to combat corruption by increasing “awareness,” becoming more “efficient and effective” and serving as “watchdogs.”

Recently, DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters also addressed the importance of vigilance in reducing corruption. In a talk he gave at New York Law School, Commissioner Peters said “Successfully tackling corruption means that it must be talked about, it must be confronted, consistently and openly. This is especially so because corruption, fraud and waste have a profound affect beyond criminality and they sap the efficiency and effectiveness of New York City government and how it serves its people.”

As such, Peters’ answer to rooting out systemic corruption is “constant vigilance.” To illustrate his point, Peters cited a recent case which demonstrated the critical nature of the lack of employee vigilance. As part of an undercover investigation announced by DOI in November 2014, a DOI investigator successfully smuggled contraband including illegal drugs, alcohol and a weapon through staff entrance security checkpoints into Rikers Island Correctional Facility.

Although the problem of corruption in New York may seem discouraging, government investigators are winning the battle as discussed in my previous article titled “New York Corruption Investigation Trends.” They are employing dynamic investigative methods, such as DOI’s undercover operation, in order to understand the root of the problem.

While it is true that New York government employees today are under siege, it is clear that the potential exists for them to increase their vigilance and institute positive changes. AG Schneiderman confirmed the “surge in headlines” can be beneficial, because it means government corruption will remain a focus of public attention thus increasing the likelihood of a solution.

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