I don’t want to sound the alarm like a grocery stand tabloid with a story of how Bat-boy and Nostradamus conspired with the Mayans to end the world at 11:11 AM December 21, 2012 but I do have to wonder if the future of online government services may at least be curtailed sometime in the future.
Dennis Hughes of the FBI is frequently cited as being responsible for the quote, “The only secure computer is one that’s unplugged, locked in a safe, and buried 20 feet under the ground in a secret location… and I’m not even too sure about that one”.
Similarly most of us in the business would agree that the internet is not safe (read any news source for the latest hack, spyware, identity theft, spam scam, etc). While I agree that many of these security issues are really ‘PEBUKs’ (problem exists between user and keyboard) for those that still believe some unknown individual from a far off land really needs their help to smuggle a large amount of money into the US and is willing to share it to do so, the reality is that these type of attacks/events continue to occur and catch a significant number of people in their ‘web’ (pun intended).
Security VS Convenience
The driving reality is that security has taken second place to convenience and it is very likely that society will continue in this fashion regardless of the ongoing losses of millions of dollars on everything from dating scams to basic online fraud and identity theft. In the early days of social media sites, users willingly clicked the “I accept” button to authorize usage without a clear understanding of what that actually meant and without the knowledge that some of their personal information would be used for tracking and other ‘as yet undefined’ uses. As more and more headlines fill the web, users are more aware and less trusting that social sites are actually interested in protecting their information rather than selling it to the highest bidder. (See my January DATAVERSITY™ article, “Your Data For Sale”) While this hasn’t necessarily turned the tide, users may provide less detail when signing up or updating their profiles than in the past. The White House has felt enough pressure over the issue to release a ‘Privacy Bill of Rights’ for consumers to ‘serve as a blueprint that gives consumers more control over how their personal information is accessed and used on the internet’. Currently, this flagrant misuse of personally identifiable information is mostly within the commercial realm but data collected for government usage may be just as vulnerable to attack or misuse.
On top of these issues, government websites are getting hacked with increasing frequency by those with either a statement to make or a chip on their shoulder. Let’s face it – there are a lot more of them trying to steal your money or data and make a name for themselves then there are those dedicated to safeguarding it. At some point, this makes you wonder if someone somewhere at some level of authority will say, “Let’s not give them the chance to do this to us or our services”. But spam, malware, and hacking alone aren’t the only issues; there are other considerations that factor in to this equation of more on-line government services as well.
Programmers as a whole do a rather amazing job of taking a business concept and turning it into the reality of sites and services for the masses. The abundance of applications available for download for Apple, Android and Window products supports this statement. But not every coder, commercial or otherwise, necessarily understands every danger that exists to sidetrack their best intent. An internet pilot to allow overseas voters the opportunity to cast their vote in 2010 for elections within the city of Washington, D.C.was curtailed because of ‘a tiny oversight in a single line of code’. Even a coding genius could easily miss a potential vulnerability that has not yet been exposed by a hacker or a researcher.
While many would argue that in-person voting is also fraught with opportunities for error, manipulating individual votes takes much more effort and personnel at each voting station than pushing a single bit of malware onto a server to potentially add, alter or delete all votes cast during a given election.
The necessary planning to pull off large-scale on-line services may be a problem for government as well. Last November FEMA, the FCC and a variety of partners conducted the first nation-wide test of the Emergency Alert System. Reviewing the comments posted to FEMA’s blog site about the test, the results were less than stellar. While I have no doubt that given sufficient time all the bugs will be worked out, in the event of an emergency in the near future, I believe I’ll be more likely to trust Twitter for updates, providing I have time to check my phone during whatever natural calamity is striking our nation’s midsection.
Another potential hiccup for on-line services to overcome is network outages. With increasing frequency, service providers are having outages affecting massive areas of the world. For those that don’t see this as a major issue, ask Blackberry how much their October 2011 outage cost them in market share. Verizon is the latest to suffer an outage to its 4GLTE data network affecting areas ofIndiana,Wisconsin,Pennsylvania andOhio. This is on top of outages to both the 3G and 4G networks in December 2011.
Outages in the past have been tied to simple hardware issues/failures and human error. Going forward, they could be tied to the sheer volume of users carriers are trying to support. By 2015, research giant Gartner projects ‘tablet sales to triple to 300 million and smartphones will leap past 1.1 billion’. (Yes, that’s billion with a ‘B’!)
All of those mobile devices require website redesign in order to support the mobile environment. Those redesigns and supporting applications open the opportunity for even more issues with application development as the market pushes code through that may or may not meet the never-ending array of potential security issues and coding best practices.
Face to Face?
While it may not be popular with the masses, a return to face-to-face government services could be a necessity sometime in the future if things get too out of hand.
Imagine what that might do to the entire population of web natives? Living in a reasonably small community, I still venture to the county court house once a year to renew my vehicle tags and every four years to renew my driver’s license. In my case, this usually adds no more than 10-15 minutes to my day as I’ve seldom, if ever, had to wait in a line. For those in major metropolitan areas, finding a parking space within walking distance of your destination may take a reasonable portion of the day. I am however glad for the convenience of filing federal and state taxes on-line and the way electronic data validation helps expedite my refund. Not receiving any other form of direct government subsidy, this constitutes the largest portion of my involvement with state and federal government on an ongoing basis. However, for those receiving monthly government checks or providing on-going documentation in support of a variety of government interactions, the though of spending days per month waiting in a queue to speak to a civil servant is unthinkable, as well as financial suicide.
Back in 2010, Britons were told they would be forced to apply for many government services online. At that time some 27% still had no internet service but they were told to go to their local post office to get on-line. Here in the states, public libraries would be the location of choice for driving people to internet services that don’t have it. Internet World Stats puts US internet in 77.3% of homes so it seems we are ripe for similar action here across the big pond.
While I’m not an advocate of cutting existing government services that appear to be working well and have not experienced problems, I believe government at all levels from city to federal, needs to keep an eye on the balance of convenience and security threats to help assure that common sense does not lose out to ‘IT fashion’.