Auditing and Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not uncommon. And as the nation’s largest employer, the federal government faces its own challenges when it comes to detecting and responding to workplace sexual harassment.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our recent reports and testimonies on workplace sexual harassment. You can also tune into our new podcast on workplace sexual harassment to learn more.

The magnitude and effects of workplace sexual harassment

Research shows that few workers who experience sexual harassment report it. Some studies estimate as few as 6% of such workers report the incident. While the most tangible effects of sexual harassment may be direct costs, such as legal fees and settlement amounts, there are also indirect costs and consequences, such as decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm to workers and employers.

Just how prevalent is workplace sexual harassment and what are its costs? It’s hard to say. According to our analysis, the few reliable nationwide estimates of sexual harassment’s prevalence vary substantially due to differences in methodology, including the survey’s question structure and time period used.

Moreover, the likeliness of experiencing workplace sexual harassment can vary based on an individual’s demographic characteristics—such as gender, race, and age—and whether the workplace is male- or female-dominated. For example, women, younger workers, and women in male-dominated workplaces were more likely to say they experienced harassment.

Similarly, we did not find any recent cost estimates of workplace sexual harassment, but identified four broad categories of costs: health, productivity, career, and reporting and legal costs. The figure below illustrates these costs.

Our new report highlights the lack of comprehensive, nationally-representative data on sexual harassment’s prevalence and costs, and discusses options and considerations from experts for collecting such data in the future.

It also finds that U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—which is responsible for enforcing federal laws on workplace situations like harassment— collects data on sexual harassment claims, but can’t fully analyze the problem. We recommended that EEOC assess the feasibility of analyzing additional data on retaliation charges, which can occur after an individual files a sexual harassment charge.

Protecting federal employees from sexual harassment in the workplace

We have issued a number of reports about sexual harassment in the federal workplace. In July, we testified before Congress about sexual harassment at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although VA has policies to prevent and address harassment of employees, some are inconsistent and incomplete. For example, the person who oversees personnel functions, such as hiring and promotions, is the same person who oversees the complaint process. This could create a conflict of interest. Additionally, VA does not collect information on all complaints centrally, which makes it harder to direct resources for preventing and addressing sexual harassment where they are needed most. This also means VA does not have a sense of how prevalent sexual harassment is within the department. According to a federal survey, an estimated 22% of VA employees had experienced workplace sexual harassment from 2014 to 2016. We made several recommendations to VA on how it could better protect its employees.

Sexual harassment in STEM programs  

Research in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) plays a critical role in enhancing the nation’s competitiveness. Sexual harassment—which is not only illegal and degrading—also makes it more difficult for women to engage in STEM fields and undermines the quality and fairness of our nation’s research.

In recent years, prominent STEM researchers have engaged in or been accused of sexual harassment, according to a number of media reports. Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and other discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities, including STEM research.

In a March report, we looked at the 5 agencies that provide most of the federal STEM research grants and found that while the number of complaints agencies received were low, the guidance for how employees could report sexual harassment incidents was limited. For example:

  • Although 4 of the 5 agencies received 3 or fewer complaints of sexual harassment within the past 5 years, 2 of those agencies lacked or had outdated guidance for how employees could file complaints.
  • Additionally, none of the 5 agencies we reviewed had goals or an overall plan to evaluate efforts to prevent sexual harassment.

We also testified before Congress in June 2019 about how these 5 agencies ensure funding is not awarded to those who have a history of sexual harassment. At that time, we said that while all 5 agencies had taken some steps to prevent sexual harassment, they also noted challenges with these efforts, such as the lack of information on sexual harassment cases. This could increase the risk of funding researchers with a history of past sexual harassment.

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Deconstructing Deepfakes—How do they work and what are the risks?

Last month, Microsoft introduced a new deepfake detection tool. Weeks ago, Intel launched another. As more and more companies follow suit and more concerns arise about the use of this technology, we take a look in today’s WatchBlog at how this technology works and the policy questions it raises.

What is a deepfake?

A deepfake is a video, photo, or audio recording that seems real but has been manipulated using artificial intelligence (AI).  The underlying technology can replace faces, manipulate facial expressions, synthesize faces, and synthesize speech. These tools are used most often to depict people saying or doing something they never said or did.

How do deepfakes work?

Deepfake videos commonly swap faces or manipulate facial expressions. The image below illustrates how this is done. In face swapping, the face on the left is placed on another person’s body. In facial manipulation, the expressions of the face on the left are imitated by the face on the right.

Face Swapping and Facial Manipulation

Deepfakes rely on artificial neural networks, which are computer systems that recognize patterns in data. Developing a deepfake photo or video typically involves feeding hundreds or thousands of images into the artificial neural network, “training” it to identify and reconstruct patterns—usually faces.

How can you spot a deepfake?

The figure below illustrates some of the ways you can identify a deepfake from the real thing. To learn more about how to identify a deepfake, and to learn about the underlying technology used, check out our recent Spotlight on this technology.

What are the benefits of these tools?

Voices and likenesses developed using deepfake technology can be used in movies to achieve a creative effect or maintain a cohesive story when the entertainers themselves are not available. For example, in the latest Star Wars movies, this technology was used to replace characters who had died or to show characters as they appeared in their youth. Retailers have also used this technology to allow customers to try on clothing virtually.

What risks do they pose?

In spite of such benign and legitimate applications like films and commerce, deepfakes are more commonly used for exploitation. Some studies have shown that much of deepfake content online is pornographic, and deepfake pornography disproportionately victimizes women.

There is also concern about potential growth in the use of deepfakes for disinformation. Deepfakes could be used to influence elections or incite civil unrest, or as a weapon of psychological warfare. They could also lead to disregard of legitimate evidence of wrongdoing and, more generally, undermine public trust.

What can be done to protect people?

As discussed above, researchers and internet companies, such as Microsoft and Intel, have experimented with several methods to detect deepfakes. These methods typically use AI to analyze videos for digital artifacts or details that deepfakes fail to imitate realistically, such as blinking or facial tics. But even with these interventions by tech companies, there are a number of policy questions about deepfakes that still need to be answered. For example:

  • What can be done to educate the public about deepfakes to protect them and help them identify real from fake?
  • What rights do individuals have to privacy when it comes to the use of deepfake technology?
  • What First Amendment protections do creators of deepfake videos, photos, and more have?

Deepfakes are powerful tools that can be used for exploitation and disinformation. With advances making them more difficult to detect, these technologies require a deeper look.

  • Questions about the content of this post? Contact Karen Howard at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact  
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The Wave of Concerns Facing the National Flood Insurance Program

Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 to protect homeowners and alleviate taxpayers’ exposure to flood losses. However, the growing magnitude of major flood events, combined with attempts to keep homeowners’ policy rates affordable, threaten the program’s solvency and expose taxpayers to losses.

Finding common ground on flood insurance reform has been difficult.

On Sept. 30, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was reauthorized for another year, allowing it to continue offering flood coverage to America’s homeowners. However, much needed reform has yet to materialize, leaving the nation’s taxpayers exposed as the program continues to take on more debt.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at the nation’s flood insurance program, and what could be done to fix it.

How we got here

Congress created NFIP with 2 competing goals: keeping flood insurance affordable and keeping the program fiscally solvent. However, a historical focus on affordability has come at the expense of solvency.

In particular, Congress has required the program to charge discounted premium rates to many policyholders, even though these rates do not reflect the full risk of flood losses. This has led to a shortfall in revenue, and NFIP has not had sufficient funds to pay claims. Additionally, because Congress has not appropriated funding to pay for this shortfall, NFIP has borrowed from the Treasury (i.e., taxpayers) to cover it—about $36.5 billion since 2005. For these reasons, we placed NFIP on our High Risk List in 2006.

Efforts to mitigate flood risk

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administers three grant programs that fund efforts to mitigate the flood risk of properties insured by NFIP. These programs funded $5.4 billion (adjusted for inflation) in projects from 1989 to 2018 to help states and localities mitigate more than 57,000 properties. While these efforts have reduced flood risk, NFIP’s debt has continued to grow because premium rates do not fully reflect the flood risk of its insured properties.

How we fix it

Our April 2017 report outlined a roadmap for comprehensive reform that could improve the program’s solvency and better protect Americans from flood risk. One of the main challenges with reform is trying to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable divide between affordability and solvency. We found that full-risk premium rates for all policies, with appropriated means-based subsidies, could help address this issue because:

  • Full-risk premium rates would remove subsidies from those who don’t need them—helping improve solvency—and more accurately signal the true flood risk to property owners.
  • Means-based subsidies would ensure that property owners who need help would get it.
  • Having Congress explicitly appropriate for the subsidies would make the true cost of the subsidy transparent to taxpayers.

While comprehensive NFIP reform should address other issues we’ve identified, such as encouraging more Americans to purchase flood insurance, focusing on the affordability/solvency trade-off could be an important first step to putting NFIP on a sustainable path, protecting both policyholders and taxpayers.

Want to learn more about our recent work on the National Flood Insurance Program? In June, we reported on FEMA’s efforts to purchase properties in areas prone to flooding in order to reduce the insurance program’s financial challenges. In May, we reported on how communities are implementing FEMA requirements on floodplain management and post-disaster rebuilding efforts.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Alicia Puente Cackley at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact
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How does FEMA help people recover from major disasters?

Heavy hurricane seasons in 2017 and 2018, along with devastating wildfires in California in those 2 years, affected more than 47 million people in the United States—about 15 percent of the national population. In response to disaster events like these, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide financial assistance for home repairs, child care, and transportation, as well as temporary housing for survivors during recovery periods. However, the program can be confusing to survivors, and would benefit from clearer communication.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our new report on FEMA’s program that provides assistance to individuals and households after a major disaster. You can also tune into our new podcast with GAO’s Chris Currie, an expert on disaster assistance programs, to learn more:

FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program

FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP) includes 18 types of assistance, such as financial assistance for home repairs, child care, and transportation. It is intended to be distributed quickly to promote recovery. The graphic below illustrates the types of assistance available under this program.  

Figure: Types of assistance available under the Individuals and Household Program

FEMA’s use of the Individuals and Households Program

Since 2010, FEMA has awarded more than $11.5 billion in IHP assistance to eligible survivors from 161 disasters. The below graphic shows disaster assistance dollars per year, with a significant increase in 2017 after the heavy hurricane season.

Challenges in accessing assistance

However, survivors have faced challenges in accessing this assistance, which is increasingly important as more larger-scale disasters affect the U.S. In our new report, we identified the following challenges facing survivors trying to access IHP assistance:

  • The process can be confusing for some survivors, causing them to miss out on some IHP assistance. FEMA cannot award aid for some losses, such as for personal property (i.e., damaged clothes, appliances, and furniture) without survivors first applying for a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration. Our analysis of applicant data found that 1.7 million survivors did not complete this step for disasters in 2016-2018, and tens of thousands of applicants may not have received all of the aid from FEMA for which they would otherwise be eligible.
  • Survivors do not understand FEMA’s letters that communicate award decisions–sometimes causing survivors to stop pursuing assistance rather than submitting an appeal. One survivor we met with in North Carolina even told us she threw her letter in the trash thinking that FEMA denied her assistance. However, the FEMA official on the ground explained that she simply needed to provide more documentation.
  • Disaster survivors need more information to understand FEMA’s award decisions. This would help manage survivors’ expectations, build trust, and improve program transparency, which are important when providing public services to those who have experienced a traumatic event, including natural disasters.

 Disaster survivor characteristics and outcomes

Along with this report, we have also reviewed FEMA’s applicant records, which provide a unique look at the characteristics of those affected by major disasters and their outcomes. For example, applicants are more likely to be uninsured and live in communities with a high proportion of vulnerable groups—such as the elderly, disabled, and non-English speakers. Find out how survivors fared each year from 2016 to 2018, or review snapshots of outcomes for selected major disasters.

FEMA’s work with state, local and tribal entities

We have also previously reported on FEMA’s readiness to respond to disasters when state, local, and tribal entities need federal assistance. As we previously reported, state and local governments have limited preparedness to help their communities recover from disasters. Our new report also found that state, local, and territory officials had a limited understanding of the IHP program, making them poorly prepared to support effective recovery operations.


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Fighting Money Laundering with the Bank Secrecy Act

Money launderers beware: The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)—an agency within the Department of Treasury—has many ways of collecting information on financial activities, making life harder for criminals to hide their illicit cash.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at 2 recent reports on FinCEN’s use of geographic targeting orders (GTO) and the costs and benefits of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).

What does money laundering look like?

Criminals who generate large sums of cash through illegal activities invariably must figure out where to safely park their loot. For some, the solution has been to use shell companies to buy luxury U.S. real estate.

Shell companies enable criminals to transact business under a company’s name, thereby hiding their individual identities. For example, criminals can set up shell companies in certain states without ever signing their names on paperwork. They can then use these shell companies to open bank accounts where they can “hide” these illicit funds within the financial system. Finally, they can then buy real estate to “clean” the money.

How does FinCEN use geographic targeting orders to find money laundering?

Since January 2016, FinCEN has implemented a real estate GTO that requires title insurers to report information on shell companies that are used to buy Manhattan or Miami homes with cash that cost $1 million or more. Over time, FinCEN has expanded the GTO to cover 12 metropolitan areas, lowered the property value threshold for reporting transactions, and broadened the definition of cash to include checks, funds transfers, and virtual currencies such as Bitcoin. With these changes, FinCEN has gained greater intelligence on the potential misuse of shell companies to launder money through real estate.

The Bank Secrecy Act prevents laundering secrets

The Bank Secrecy Act requires banks to file a variety of reports that could be useful to law enforcement for tracking money laundering. For instance, banks must file suspicious activity reports for transactions suspected of involving funds from illegal activities. They also must file currency transaction reports when customers deposit more than $10,000 in cash. In 2018, banks filed over 975,000 suspicious activity reports and nearly 14 million currency transaction reports.

In our report issued last month, we surveyed 6 federal law enforcement agencies and found that more than 72% of their staff used these Bank Secrecy Act reports from 2015–2018 for identifying new subjects to investigate or expanding ongoing investigations.

The Costs of compliance

While the Bank Secrecy Act reports benefit law enforcement, our September report also found that producing such reports and complying with other BSA requirements can be costly for banks. We reviewed 11 banks varying in size and location and estimated that their costs for complying with the BSA ranged from about $14,000 to about $21 million in 2018. We also found that these costs generally tended to be proportionally greater for the smaller banks than for the larger ones.

Want to learn more about our work on anti-money laundering efforts and the Bank Secrecy Act? Click here.

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Is it Harder for Women to Save for Retirement?

In a word: yes.

On Thursday, the Comptroller General of the United States Gene Dodaro, head of GAO, testified about the unique challenges women face saving for retirement. Among those challenges, he noted that women have longer life spans, lower lifetime earnings, and that they are more likely to be primary caregivers, which can limit them from maintaining paid employment. To watch the testimony, click here.

Today’s WatchBlog explores our portfolio of work on women’s retirement issues, including our findings from recent interviews with groups of older women.

Also, check out our new video where you can hear from women, in their own words, discuss their concerns about saving for retirement.

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The Quest to Combat Insider Threats at Our Nation’s Airports

For many, the presence of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel screening passengers can bring a sense of security that nefarious actors won’t get past the airport’s checkpoints. But have you ever wondered how you are protected if the screeners or other airport workers are the nefarious actors? Many of these workers have access within restricted areas of the airport, would know details of the airport’s security procedures, and could exploit vulnerabilities to engage in illicit activities like smuggling illegal goods.

In today’s WatchBlog, we explore our recent work on the TSA Insider Threat Program that aims to deter, detect, and mitigate insider threats at the nation’s approximately 430 TSA-regulated airports.

How does TSA secure so many airports from insider threats?

To ensure the security of airports that it regulates, TSA collaborates with airport management, airlines, law enforcement, and other entities to implement security programs. Although these programs vary across airports, all are designed to mitigate threats to aviation security, including preventing TSA and other airport workers from causing harm—intentional or otherwise. Such harm could take the form of a screener who willfully allows a bag of drugs through the X-ray machine; an aircraft mechanic who sabotages passenger safety equipment; or an airport worker who carries a bag of firearms through a restricted-access door to a passenger. TSA is on the lookout for all of them.

There are approximately 1.8 million airport workers across the U.S. who are monitored by security measures approved by or carried out by TSA, such as:

  • vetting prospective employees,
  • restricting access to sensitive areas by using badge readers and biometric sensors,
  • randomly searching workers, and other measures highlighted in the figure below.

Figure: Examples of Security Procedures and Technologies Used by TSA or Other Aviation Stakeholders to Help Mitigate Insider Threats at TSA-Regulated Airports

Is there anything new with TSA’s insider threat programs?

In 2018, TSA updated their efforts to mitigate insider threats, including analyzing social media accounts to help “vet” select prospective employees applying for a position with access within restricted areas of an airport.

In fact, our analysis showed that the management at many airports are taking additional measures beyond TSA requirements to improve security. For example, to prevent a second worker from entering a restricted area by “piggybacking” behind another worker who swiped his badge, one airport we visited installed sensor towers (shown below) to detect if more than one person crosses the threshold.

Figure: Access Control Technologies at an Access Point to a Secured Area of an Airport

These efforts to keep our airports secure require coordination across multiple offices and committees within TSA. This makes it challenging for the agency to synchronize and integrate activities across offices. TSA would benefit from a strategic plan or roadmap for the Insider Threat Program. We recommended that TSA develop such a plan, as well as identify ways to measure the program’s progress in detecting and deterring insider threats.

To learn more about our recommendations to improve TSA’s Insider Threat Program, check out our report.

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How Can the Federal Government Strengthen Its Response to COVID-19?

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our third report on the implementation of the CARES Act and other pandemic relief measures. The report outlines the many effective steps the Administration and the Congress have taken to address issues, and identifies further steps to improve the nation’s response in these areas:

  • the medical supply chain
  • vaccines and therapeutics
  • data collection
  • stimulus payments
  • federal assistance to states and localities
  • K-12 schools
  • federal procurements
  • cybersecurity

Read on to learn more about what we recommended.  You can also listen to our podcast featuring GAO directors who have helped lead our review of the federal response to the pandemic.

The Medical Supply Chain

Shortages of personal protective equipment and testing supplies have happened because some supplies are not made in the U.S. and global demand for these supplies is high. We made recommendations to help the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) work together to continue making progress to stabilize the supply chain. Specifically, agencies should document plans for supply functions transitioning from federal partners to HHS; further develop and communicate about specific actions to mitigate supply shortages; and help state partners better track and plan supply requests.  

Vaccine Distribution Plan

On September 16, HHS and the Department of Defense (DOD) provided us with documents showing their plan for distributing and administering a COVID-19 vaccine. We are evaluating this plan to make sure it is consistent with best practices for project planning and scheduling, and to ensure it outlines how efforts will be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities. Having these elements in a plan would help ensure that the public receive access to any vaccine as soon as possible.

COVID-19 Data Collection

We have identified a need to collect reliable data that can drive decision-making. Specifically, better data is needed on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. We made recommendations on reporting race and ethnicity information for cases and hospitalizations to further explore potential disparities. We also found that HHS’s data on COVID-19 in nursing homes don’t capture the early months of the pandemic. HHS, in consultation with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the CDC, should develop a strategy to capture more complete data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes retroactively back to January 1, 2020.

Economic Impact Payments

The IRS has issued economic impact payments to eligible individuals for whom IRS has the necessary information to do so; but not everyone who was eligible received a payment or the correct amount. IRS took several actions to address challenges we reported on in June, including a policy change that should allow some eligible recipients to receive supplemental payments for qualifying children sooner than expected. However, the Department of the Treasury and the IRS don’t have up-to-date information on how many eligible recipients haven’t yet received their payments. This could hinder outreach efforts and place potentially millions of people at risk of missing their payments. We recommended that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, update and refine the estimate of eligible recipients to help target outreach and communications efforts.

Federal Assistance for States and Localities

The Coronavirus Relief Fund is the largest program established in the 4 COVID-19 relief laws that provides aid for state, local, territory, and tribal governments. Audits of entities that receive funds from programs like this are critical to safeguarding those funds. Additional audit guidance is needed for COVID-19-related programs. Supplemental information on auditing such programs is expected this fall, but further delays in issuing this guidance could undermine auditors’ ability to issue consistent and timely reports. We recommended that the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with Treasury, issue this audit guidance as soon as possible, as many audit efforts are under way.

Guidance for K-12 Schools

State and local school district officials faced tough decisions when deciding whether to reopen schools in their communities this fall, and when planning on how best to ensure students’ safety. These officials relied on and continue to look for guidance and recommendations from federal, state and local public health officials when making those decisions. Portions of CDC’s guidance on reopening K-12 schools are inconsistent, and some federal guidance appears misaligned with CDC’s risk-based approach on school operating status. CDC should ensure that its federal guidance on reassessing schools’ operating status is cogent, clear, and internally consistent.


We have identified numerous cybersecurity weaknesses at multiple HHS component agencies—including CMS, CDC, and the Food and Drug Administration—during the last 6 years. These weaknesses can pose risks to patient information, intellectual property, public health data, and intelligence. Based on imminent cybersecurity threats, we urge HHS to expedite implementation of our prior recommendations regarding cybersecurity weaknesses at its component agencies.

How can you report suspected fraud to GAO?

It can be challenging to identify where to report your concerns when you have an allegation of fraud, waste, or abuse. But you can report any of your concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic or the CARES Act to GAO’s FraudNet.

Use any of these 3 methods for reporting your concerns to FraudNet:

  • Our online reporting portal
  • Via email at
  • Or by calling our hotline at 1-800-424-5454

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and recommendations to practice social distancing, FraudNet staff are working remotely. As a result, we strongly encourage you to submit your concern online so we may provide a more timely response and continue to serve the public.

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The Internet of Things (video)

“Internet of Things” (IoT) generally refers to everyday devices that you can find around your house—such as thermostats, smart speakers, or refrigerators—that now connect to a network or the Internet. But, the federal government is also using this technology for a variety of purposes.

Today’s WatchBlog features a new report issued this week and highlights our new video on how one federal agency IoT technology.

What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things includes devices or “things” that connect with other devices throughout buildings, vehicles, transportation infrastructure, or homes. Devices that use IoT technology consist of 3 primary components—hardware (like sensors and processors), network connectivity (wireless devices that use Bluetooth or WiFi), and software (programs within hardware) that interact to complete tasks. For example, IoT technologies might allow you to track your workout rigor through a watch, sense visitors approaching your home from your doorbell, or order groceries online through voice-activated controllers in your home. For a business, for example those that deliver goods and services, it can be used to track delivery or vehicles progress toward your home. In general, the use of these IoT devices is growing fast—some experts forecast that 43 billion devices will be in use worldwide by 2023.

The Federal Government and the Internet of Things:

While homes and businesses see a growing use of IoT technologies, the federal government is another user of these devices. In a new report, we surveyed federal agencies to ask how they were using IoT technology. We received responses from 90 of 115 agencies surveyed. Most often, agencies told us that they use IoT tech to:

  • Control or monitor equipment or systems,
  • Control access to devices or facilities, or
  • Track physical assets such as fleet vehicles.

In 2019, the St. Lawrence Seaway, which allows ships to travel from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, added IoT technology to its locks. IoT technology is used in the mooring systems that are part of the locks. Specifically, the mooring system uses sensors and a vacuum system to control and monitor ships as they navigate the U.S. controlled-locks in the St. Lawrence Seaway. This video explains more:

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Mining on Federal Lands After the Gold Rush

Neil Young once sang that he’d been a miner for a heart of gold. If he was on federal land, he may or may not have had to pay a royalty on any hardrock minerals he found, like copper, molybdenum, or, of course, gold. The related laws are a bit complex—but we’ve got Neil covered.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our report on mining on federal lands.

A gold mine on federal lands in Nevada

Rockin’ In the Free World

There are 2 types of federal lands: acquired lands and public domain lands.

  • Acquired lands are those granted or sold to the United States by a state or citizen
  • Public domain lands usually were never owned by a state or private citizen and make up about 90% of all federal lands

Different statutes and systems govern the management of solid minerals on each type of federal lands.

On acquired lands, hardrock mining is subject to federal laws that allow the federal government to maintain title to the land but establish terms for using it, including royalties to be paid to the federal government. This is called a leasing system. The Bureau of Land Management generally uses it to authorize mining on acquired federal lands.

On public domain lands, hardrock mining is generally subject to the General Mining Act of 1872, which allows people to locate minerals and stake a claim to obtain the exclusive right to extract them without paying a federal royalty. This is called a location system. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service each maintain separate programs to evaluate and approve location system operations on lands they manage.

Besides hardrock mining, non-energy minerals (like sodium and phosphate) and coal can be mined on federal lands. This generally takes place under leasing systems. Operations under both location and leasing systems for both hardrock and non-energy minerals are subject to other environmental and natural resource management laws.

So, depending on the type of federal land and what kind of mineral is produced, mine operators may or may not be required to pay the government a royalty.

You Never Call

Our report dug deep into the data on mining on federal lands. We looked at hardrock, non-energy mineral, and coal mining there. We found that there are 872 authorized mining operations on about 1.3 million acres of federal land as of September 2018—most of which aren’t subject to royalties.

Mine operators paid about $550 million in royalties in FY 2018. But federal agencies don’t know exactly how productive hardrock mines on public domain lands are because these agencies generally don’t collect data from mine operators that don’t have to pay royalties.

To learn more about mining on federal lands, check out our report on the topic. To unearth still more on the topic, check out the data supplement.

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