A flowery title for a blog post, I'll admit, but I hope that at least the Le Guin fans out there will forgive me. The problem of knowing something's true name is in the news, most particularly in this story from Wired's Spencer Ackerman:
Through a "joint venture," the notorious private security firm Blackwater has won a piece of a five-year State Department contract worth up to $10 billion, Danger Room has learned.
Apparently, there is no misdeed so big that it can keep guns-for-hire from working for the government. And this is despite a campaign pledge from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ban the company from federal contracts.
Eight private security firms have won State's giant Worldwide Protective Services contract, the big Foggy Bottom partnership to keep embassies and their inhabitants safe. Two of those firms are longtime State contract holders DynCorp and Triple Canopy. The others are newcomers to the big security contract: EOD Technology, SOC, Aegis Defense Services, Global Strategies Group, Torres International Services and International Development Solutions LLC.
Don't see any of Blackwater's myriad business names on there? That's apparently by design. Blackwater and the State Department tried their best to obscure their renewed relationship. As Danger Room reported on Wednesday, Blackwater did not appear on the vendors' list for Worldwide Protective Services. And the State Department confirms that the company, renamed Xe Services, didn't actually submit its own independent bid. Instead, they used a blandly-named cut out, "International Development Solutions," to retain a toehold into State's lucrative security business. No one who looks at the official announcement of the contract award would have any idea that firm is connected to Blackwater.
This is a troubling story. But for those of us who work with government data, it's an all-too-familiar one. Navigating the link between an entity's name and its identity is very, very difficult. Sunlight Reporting Group wrote about a similar problem back in January: a blacklist of contractors called the Excluded Party List System has been failing to do its job, partly because of difficulties in positively identifying the companies entered into it. People and even companies can have similar names, or the names entered into the system can contain typos. It's not uncommon to wind up with a fuzzy sort of match, and then to have to use whatever additional data is on hand -- an address, or a date, whatever -- to add confidence to the guess.Continue reading