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Brave Digital World

Smarter Solutions not More of the Same

By Michael Tanji | March 2, 2009

Consider the following scenarios, some notional, some pulled and adapted from recent headlines:

  • You are the President of the United States. You are about to step foot on the new Marine One helicopter for a trip to Camp David. Just before takeoff, as you are waving to the press, an aide whispers that a hostile foreign power may have obtained the plans for the bird you are about to board. Just what is the expression on your face right now?
  • You are the head of a major credit card processing firm. You are awoken at oh-dark-thirty and told your firm has become the victim of the largest single credit card data breach ever. You know that smaller breaches happen all the time and in fact the sum total of minor breaches over the course of a year might actually expose more people to greater risk, but your board, stockholders, and customers aren't going to care all that much. Just how current is your resume?
  • Barely three years have passed since the FBI's Virtual Case File debacle; perhaps an even greater technically oriented tragedy is taking place nearby. Still, the government seems hell bent on paying for a technical solution for some of our most personal and sensitive data. Data that is sure to be lost or stolen. At what point does writing checks for such services seem foolish, or cashing those checks start to feel a little indecent?

Technology can solve a lot of problems, but while we are living in an increasingly technical age, our technical sophistication has not kept pace. Executives still don't seem to make decisions based on data or the advice of those in the trenches, but from whatever article on technology was in the last in-flight magazine they read. Fights about how to retool information-based processes now that "living" stores of information and analysis are available are driven largely by ignorance and institutional inertia, not any logical or even reasonable data-based argument.

There is no shortage of good ideas on how to apply technology in ways that will make work and life safer, more efficient and more effective, it's just that government (and the institutions that serve government) is largely unused to working in such a fashion. If it is not a hundred-million dollar contract that last five years no one seems to know what to do. It is beyond the comprehension of most in positions of authority that one person with the right knowledge and skills could produce a solution equal or superior to anything a conglomerate could. You see some rare exceptions, and that rarity is a true shame that says more about those who would rather hold on to the power derived from data than serve the people.

The threat most often overlooked in such discussions is that our adversaries, particularly those of the non-state variety, don't really have such issues. By nature they are dynamic and efficient and maximize the utility of information technology to accomplish their missions (illicit though they may be). The loss of the right kind of technical data on US military aircraft means that once those aircraft are flying they may be easier to shoot down; the theft of tens of thousands of electronic identities means the loss of untold dollars of revenue and corporate and personal productivity at a time in our country when both time and money are exceedingly precious commodities; the inability to deliver on the promise of technology means that people who could derive the greatest benefit from the intelligent application of technology will neither trust it nor respect it, extending the life of failed cultures, processes and ideas. We are close to a point where our inability to operate at combat speed in the information age puts us at risk of becoming the most physically powerful and practically impotent force in the world.

It is hard to argue with the broad idea of applying information technology to address problems of any sort. However, throwing computers at a problem isn't a solution. What such approaches will inevitably do is become a money sink that will expose more people to more threats and cost millions if not billions more in lost governmental, corporate, and personal treasure. It will further erode people's confidence in technology at a time when we should be embracing its power and benefits.

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