Politicians just don't get IT

Earlier this week, the president of the United States (George W. Bush) sat down with a reporter from CNBC for a friendly interview. During the chat, the reporter asked him about his Internet usage. "Have you ever Googled anybody? Do you ever use Google?" she wanted to know.

The president replied that he does use "the Google" (his words) on occasion to "pull up maps" -- "I forgot the name of the program, but you get the satellite ..." -- for viewing his ranch.

This exchange has prompted chuckles among techies and non- across the Internets -- another famous reference by Bush from 2004. (More troubling to me in that CNBC interview is Bush's admission that he will not use e-mail: "I don't e-mail, because of the different record requests that can happen to a president.")

But Bush isn't the only elected leader out there who has demonstrated a poor grasp of fairly basic technology -- and worse. As such, I think these kinds of gaffes ought to elicit more than dismissive snickers or disgusted eye rolls. They should elicit feelings of concern and some probing questions of both candidates and politicians about how technology fits in to their agendas, including how they are going to work to protect our exposed digital borders.

Now, I'm not saying that elected leaders need to be DBAs or certified Linux admins anymore than a CEO of a private organization should be. They should, however, have a decent understanding of and interest in topics such as e-commerce and data security, as well as advisers and staffers who are keenly attuned to technological issues. This is, after all, the Internet Age, and the Internet is an essential tool for our economy and security -- which makes the Internet a plausible place for attacks in the U.S.

Examples and reports of political techno-ignorance seem to be on the rise, and I don't think people in the tech community needed to be told that by a former EU commissioner.

The most significant proof, in my mind, is a recent report from the Government Reform Committee which gave the federal government a pathetic D+ for its handling of data security. Seems that since 2003, every single one of the governments 19 departments has suffered at least one data breach, though some have suffered hundreds. If there's been a call for sweeping reform throughout these departments, I've yet to read about it.

Then there were the hearings earlier this year about Net neutrality. The outcome of that debate could have a huge impact on the Internet as we know it, but I can't help but wonder how many of our elected officials really grasp the issue. Consider, for example, the infamous description of the Internet by Sen. Ted Stevens:

"Ten movies streaming across that, that internet, and what happens to your own personal internet? I just the other day got ... an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday, I got it yesterday. Why? [...] They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."

Consider, also, electronic voting. Experts have cited legitimate security problems with existing e-voting machines for years now. Yet even after over a thousand separate incidences were reported during the 2004 elections, the government's moving at a glacial pace to resolve them.

At least one pundit has even resorted to giving an in-depth explanation of how to steal an election, which, alongside an undoubtedly satirical Web site promising to fix election outcomes, might light a fire under a politician or two to fix the problem.

And just today, Rep. Edward Markey called for the arrest of security researcher Christopher Soghoian, who created a Web site, called Northwest Airlines Boarding Pass Generator, on which users could print up a forged boarding pass for Northwest Airlines flights. That, to me, is yet again indicative of a politician who is missing entirely the big technology picture of airline security. (There's also a question there about freedom of speech, but this entry is more about politician's knowledge of technology, not Constitutional law.)

Anyway, election day is drawing near, so if you haven't voted yet and you're as concerned as I am about keep technologically ignorant politicians out of office, I suggest you do a little more homework on your candidate of choice.

Perhaps even send him or her an e-mail -- though if you do, you run the risk of not getting a response. Because, you know, not all politicians read their e-mail.

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