July 1, 2006
When you think of outsourcing geospatial work, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it hiring a person or firm in the United States to handle a job that you yourself would normally do?
Or is it sending work to some firm in another country like India or China? Many people, including some people in Congress, use the word "outsourcing" when they really mean "offshoring." The difference is very important to the geospatial sciences. Many believe it is the difference between something innocuous and something that may lead to a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Many surveying firms outsource work with no repercussions. But when they send work offshore, they risk repercussions that could include breaching the confidence of their client or the security of the nation.
"Outsourcing" is when a company relocates a whole process, a piece of a process, a function or discrete pieces of work outside of its own corporate boundaries. "Offshoring" refers to the relocation of the whole process, a piece of a process, a function or discrete pieces of work outside the geographic boundaries of the United States.
The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) is opposed to offshoring the creation of data or production of work for which professional supervision is required. Additionally, ACSM is opposed to sending sensitive information related to land use and ownership to an offshore company. A professional licensed surveyor has the personal responsibility for making sure his work is as accurate as possible, thus his supervision is required every step of the way. When sending work to a foreign firm, the surveying professional may find it difficult to maintain this oversight.
The opposition to sending sensitive information relating to land use and ownership to a company in a foreign country is a view shared with a number of organizations as well as many influential members of Congress. In December 2005, several representatives wrote a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the potential threat to our nation's homeland security posed by sending geospatial data offshore for "processing, data [conversion] and value-added services." The letter from Representatives Bill Young (R-FL), former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Donald Manzullo (R-IL), current chairman of the House Small Business Committee, and others informed Secretary Chertoff that, "This practice [sending geospatial data offshore] raises issues regarding access to data about the location of power plants (including nuclear), pipelines, water supply systems, underground utilities, subway systems and other critical infrastructure by individuals in foreign countries who have not been through any degree of security clearance and where control of access to data simply does not exist." The Department of Homeland Security has not formally responded to the letter.
One month earlier, the General Accounting Office issued a report about sending services work offshore, but did not specifically discuss geospatial-related services. The report noted that several proposals to restrict some service work from being sent to foreign locations have stemmed from concerns that offshoring could pose increased risks to national security. Some relevant proposals include: (1) requiring that certain projects involving defense acquisitions or military equipment be performed exclusively in the United States; (2) requiring that work on critical infrastructure projects such as electricity grids and pipelines be done within the United States; (3) requiring companies to keep work involving sensitive private information (including information relating to the location of personal property) in the United States; and (4) requiring companies to notify and obtain consent from U.S. residents before sending personal information to be processed in other countries.
Congress has proposed several pieces of legislation that attempt to curb the extent of offshoring. Some of those bills include: prohibiting federal work or federally funded work from being performed in foreign countries; requiring contractors with the U.S. military and executive agencies to have at least 50 percent of their workforce in the States; and prohibiting the federal government from providing assistance to, or doing business with, companies that in the last five years sent jobs offshore that were previously performed in the States unless the company also creates significant replacement jobs in the States. Additionally, there is legislation in several states that restricts the procurement of state-funded services from overseas.
Businesses could argue that federal legislation restricting or prohibiting a business from sending work offshore is a restriction of trade, and without significant evidence to support the prohibition, could be viewed as unconstitutional. Presently, the federal government does not have a lot of evidence on the effects that offshoring of geospatial data will have on the United States. No evidence has been publicized that directly links the attacks of September 11th or attacks on U.S. interests around the world to the offshoring of geospatial data. However, the potential for terrorist attacks on the United States associated with the offshoring of geospatial data cannot be denied. In his 2002 State of the Union address to Congress, President Bush said, "Our discoveries in Afghanistan confirmed our worst fears. "¦We have found diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities, detailed instructions for making chemical weapons, surveillance maps of American cities, and thorough descriptions of landmarks in America and throughout the world. What we have found in Afghanistan confirms that, far from ending there, our war against terror is only beginning."
Geospatial professionals should carefully consider their available options when deciding to send work offshore. At a minimum, they should carefully investigate the foreign firm with whom they are dealing. Being known as the person who sent data offshore that was used in a terrorist attack is not worth the money potentially saved by sending the work offshore.