Category Archives: Politics

Posts of a political nature

Hillary Clinton’s Shadow IT Problem

As you likely know, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she set up a private email server at home and used it for her email communication, passing up a secure government account. This was a bHillary_Clinton_Testimony_to_House_Select_Committee_on_Benghaziad idea, for a number of reasons, primary among them the fact that sensitive information could be leaked on this less secure system, and that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests could be bypassed. But the burning question, at a time when Clinton looks likely to be nominated as the Democratic candidate for President, is what her motivation was for setting up the server in the first place. Was it to bypass the Freedom of Information Act? Was it to easily trade classified materials, as her most critical accusers suspect? Or was it, as she claims, because she had a lot of personal email to send and she didn’t want to manage two accounts? 

This post doesn’t seek to answer those questions. Instead, it pitches yet another theory: that Clinton’s motivations might have had everything to do with technology and little to do with politics. Judicial Watch, a conservative foundation looking for evidence that Clinton broke laws in her handling of the email, received some fascinating information in response to a recent FOIA request. 

Upon joining the State Department in early 2009, Clinton immediately requested a Blackberry smartphone. Having used one extensively during her 2008 Presidential campaign, she, like almost every attorney in that decade, had fallen in love with her Blackberry, hence the request. After all, Condoleezza Rice, her predecessor as Secretary of State, had used one. President Obama had a special secure one that the NSA had developed for him. But they said no. Even after being called to a high level meeting with Clinton’s top aide and five State Department officials, they still said no.The NSA offered Clinton an alternative. But it was based on Windows CE, a dramatically different, less intuitive smartphone operating system. A month later, Clinton started using her own server. Judicial Watch claims that this info proves that Clinton knew that her email was not secure, but I think that she has already admitted that. But it also reveals something much more telling.

As a three plus decade technology Director/CIO (working primarily with Attorneys), I can tell you that people get attached to specific types of technology. I know a few Attorneys who still swear to this day that Wordperfect 5.1 for DOS was the best word processing software ever released. And there are millions who will tell you that their Blackberry was their virtual right arm in the 2000’s.

How devoted are people to their favorite applications and devices? I worked for a VP who was only comfortable using Word, so when she did her quarterly reports to the board, she had her assistant export huge amounts of information from our case management system. Then she modified all of it in Word. Once delivered, she had her assistant manually update the case management system in order to incorporate her changes. Efficient? Not at all. But she loved herself some Word. I’ve seen staff using seven year old laptops because they know them and don’t want to have to learn and set up a new one. And it wasn’t until the bitter end of 2014 that both my boss and my wife finally gave in and traded up their Blackberries for iPhones.

Again, the point here is not that Clinton should have ditched the secure, government system in order to use her phone of choice. In her circumstances, the security concerns should have outweighed her personal comfort. But for many, the desire to stick with tech that they know and love is often counter to logic, efficiency, security and policy. And most of us work in environments where bucking the system isn’t quite as dire as it could be for the nation’s top diplomat.

Shadow IT” is technology that users install without company approval because they prefer it to what’s offered. What I know is that I can’t secure my network if it’s packed with technology that my users hate. Smart people will bypass that security in order to use the tools that work for them. An approach to security that neglects usability and user preference is likely to fail. In most cases, there are compromises that can be made between IT and users that allow secure products to be willingly adopted. In other cases, with proper training, hand-holding, and executive sponsorship,  you can win users over. But when we are talking about Blackberries in the last decade, or the iPhone in this one, we have to acknowledge that the popularity of the product is a serious factor in adoption that technologists can’t ignore. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Hillary Clinton.

It’s Time For A Tech Industry Intervention To Address Misogyny

News junkie that I am, I see a lot of headlines.  And four came in over the last 30 hours or so that paint an astonishing picture of a  tech industry that is in complete denial about the intense misogyny that permeates the industry.  Let’s take them in the order that they were received:

First, programmer, teacher and game developer Kathy Sierra.  In 2007, she became well known enough to attract the attention of some nasty people, who set out to, pretty much, destroy her.  On Tuesday, she chronicled the whole sordid history on her blog, and Wired picked it up as well (I’m linking to both, because Kathy doesn’t promise to keep it posted on Serious Pony).  Here are some highlights:

  • The wrath of these trolls was incurred simply because she is a woman and she was reaching a point of being influential in the sector.
  • They threatened rape, dismemberment, her family;
  • They published her address and contact information all over the internet;
  • They made up offenses to attribute to her and maligned her character online;
  • Kathy suffers from epileptic seizures, so they uploaded animated GIFs to epilepsy support forums of the sort that can trigger seizures (Kathy’s particular form of epilepsy isn’t subject to those triggers but many of the forum members were).

The story gets more bizarre, as the man she identified as the ringleader became a sort of hero to the tech community in spite of this abhorrent behavior. Kathy makes a strong case that the standard advice of “don’t feed the trolls” is bad advice.  Her initial reaction to the harassment was to do just what they seemed to desire — remove herself from the public forums.  And they kept right after her.

Adria Richards, a developer who was criticized, attacked and harassed for calling out sexist behavior at a tech conference, then recounted her experiences on Twitter, and storified them here. Her attackers didn’t stop at the misogyny; they noted that she is black and Jewish as well, and unloaded as much racist sentiment as they did sexist.  And her experience was similar to Kathy Sierra’s.

These aren’t the only cases of this, by far.  Last month Anita Sarkeesian posted a vblog asking game developers to curb their use of the death and dismemberment of female characters as the “goto” method of demonstrating that a bad guy is bad. The reaction to her request was the same onslaught of rape and violence threats, outing of her home address, threats to go to her house and kill her and her children.

So, you get it — these women are doing the same thing that many people do; developing their expertise; building communities on Twitter, and getting some respect and attention for that expertise.  And ferocious animals on the internet are making their lives a living hell for it.  And it’s been going on for years.

Why hasn’t it stopped?  Maybe it’s because the leadership in the tech sector is in pretty complete denial about it.  This was made plain today, as news came out about two events at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference running this week. The first event was a “White Male Allies Plenary Panel” featuring Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer; Google’s SVP of search Alan Eustace; Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy; and Tayloe Stansbury, CTO of Intuit.  These “allies” offered the same assurances that they are trying to welcome women at their companies. A series of recent tech diversity studies show that there is a lot of work to be done there.  But, despite all of the recent news about Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, etc., Eustace still felt comfortable saying:

“I don’t think people are actively protecting the [toxic culture] or holding on to it … or trying to keep [diverse workers] from the power structure that is technology,”

Later in the day, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, stunned the audience by stating:

“It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.”

Because having faith has worked so well for equal pay in the last 50 years? Here’s a chart showing how underpaid women are throughout the U.S. Short story? 83% of men’s wages in the best places (like DC) and 69% in the worst.

Nadella did apologize for his comment. But that’s not enough, by a long shot, for him, or Eric Schmidt, or Mark Zuckerberg, or any of their contemporaries. There is a straight line from the major tech exec who is in denial about the misogyny that is rampant in their industry to the trolls who are viciously attacking women who try and succeed in it. As long as they can sit, smugly, on a stage, in front of a thousand women in tech, and say “there are no barriers, you just have to work hard and hope for the best”, they are undermining the efforts of those women and cheering on the trolls.  This is a crisis that needs to be resolved with leadership and action.  Americans are being abused and denied the opportunity that is due to anyone in this country. Until the leaders of the tech industry stand up and address this blatant discrimination, they are condoning the atrocities detailed above.

Postnote: The nonprofit tech sector is a quite different ballpark when it comes to equity among the sexes.  Which is not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s much better, and certainly less vicious. I’m planning a follow-up post on our situation, and I’ll be looking for some community input on it.

 

The Increasing Price We Pay For The Free Internet

The Price of Freedom is Visible HerePicture : Rhadaway.

This is a follow-up on my previous post, A Tale Of Two (Or Three) Facebook Challengers. A key point in that post was that we need to be customers, not commodities.  In the cases of Facebook, Google and the vast majority of free web resources, the business model is to provide a content platform for the public and fund the business via advertising.  In this model, simply, our content is the commodity.  The customer is the advertiser.  And the driving decisions regarding product features relate more to how many advertisers they can bring on and retain than how they can meet the public’s wants and needs.

It’s a delicate balance.  They need to make it compelling for us to participate and provide the members and content that the advertisers can mine and market.  But since we aren’t the ones signing the checks, they aren’t accountable to us, and, as we’ve seen with Facebook, ethical considerations about how they use our data are often afterthoughts.  We’ve seen it over and over, and again this week when they backed off on a real names policy that many of their users considered threatening to their well-being.  One can’t help but wonder, given the timing of their statement, how much new competitor Ello’s surge in popularity had to do with the retraction. After all, this is where a lot of the people who were offended by the real names policy went.  And they don’t want to lose users, or all of their advertisers will start working on Ello to make the Facebook deal.

Free Software is at the Heart of the Internet

Freeware has been around since the ’80’s, much of it available via Bulletin Boards and online services like CompuServe and AOL. It’s important to make some distinctions here.  There are several variants of freeware, and it’s really only the most recent addition that’s contributing to this ethically-challenged business model:

  • Freeware is software that someone creates and gives away, with no license restrictions or expectation of payment. The only business model that this supports is when the author has other products that they sell, and the freeware applications act as loss leaders to introduce their paid products.
  • Donationware is much like Freeware, but the author requests a donation. Donationware authors don’t get rich from it, but they’re usually just capitalizing on a hobby.
  • Freemium is software that you can download for free and use, but the feature set is limited unless you purchase a license.
  • Open Source is software that is free to download and use, as well as modify to better meet your needs. It is subject to a license that mostly insures that, if you modify the code, you will share your modifications freely. The business model is usually based on providing  training and support for the applications.
  • Adware is free or inexpensive software that comes with advertising.  The author makes money by charging the advertisers, not the users, necessarily.

Much of the Internet runs on open source: Linux, Apache, OpenSSL, etc. Early adopters (like me) were lured by the free software. In 1989, I was paying $20 an hour to download Novell networking utilities from Compuserve when I learned that I could get a command line internet account for $20 a month and download them from Novell’s FTP site. And, once I had that account, I found lots more software to download in addition to those networking drivers.

Adware Ascendant

Adware is now the prevalent option for free software and web-based services, and it’s certainly the model for 99% of the social media sites out there.  The expectation that software, web-based and otherwise, will be free originated with the freeware, open source and donationware authors. But the companies built on adware are not motivated by showing off what they’ve made or supporting a community.  Any company funded by venture capital is planning on making money off of their product.  Amazon taught the business community that this can be a long game, and there might be a long wait for a payoff, but the payoff is the goal.

Ello Doesn’t Stand A Chance

So Ello comes along and makes the same points that I’m making. Their revenue plan is to go to a freemium model, where basic social networking is free, but some features will cost money, presumably business features and, maybe, mobile apps. The problem is that the pricing has to be reasonable and, to many, any price is unreasonable, because they like being subsidized by the ad revenue. The expectation is that social media networks are free.  For a social network to replace something as established as Facebook, they will need to offer incentives, not disincentives, and, sadly, the vast majority of Facebook users aren’t going to leave unless they are severely inconvenienced by Facebook, regardless of how superior or more ethical the competition is.

So I don’t know where this is going to take us, but I’m tired of getting things for free.  I think we should simply outlaw Adware and return to the simple capitalist economy that our founders conceived of : the one where people pay each other money for products and services. Exchanging dollars for goods is one abstraction layer away from bartering. It’s not as complex and creepy as funding your business by selling the personal information about your users to third parties.  On the Internet, freedom’s just another word for something else to lose.

After the Rapture

rapture
Well, the end of the world has come and gone and I’m pleased to report that the dead aren’t risen and Game of Thrones is on HBO tonight. But, after all of the jokey links and comments I’ve seen and shared on Twitter and Facebook this week, I got to thinking about why this was such a press-stopper, given that 99.999 percent of the world did not fall for it, nor would we. This was the publicity-grabbing show of a religious freakazoid and we were all happy to oblige him. Why is that?

I think it’s a combination of things. We’re big on disaster lately. Movies like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow rake it in; shows like The Walking Dead are huge hits. Maybe it’s because disaster is easy to imagine in a world where scientists are all warning us about global warming and the magnitude of natural disasters does seem to be up with all of the recent flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

But I think there’s another element to this: The rapture isn’t just about the pious getting their eternal reward. It’s just as much about the sinners getting their earthly torment. How mean-spirited is that? “I’m joining my lord in heaven while that awful next door neighbor dies in an earthquake, hah!”

These are people who can’t just rest assured that Christ will save them — they find the idea of salvation oh so much more delicious if they know that the unsaved will be left with fiery deaths and a zombie apocalypse to contend with while they wait in queue to be assigned their harps. So, maybe a lot of the snarky response to the rapture was spawned by an urge to respond to the insulting premise.

I’ve never taken Jesus in as my lord and savior, and it’s not going to happen, not even on my death bed. I believe that he likely existed, and said lots of good things. like “Judge not, lest ye be judged” and that golden rule of “Do unto others…”. I just stop short of the miracle birth and resurrection stuff — I’m far too good a Unitarian for that. So that makes me all the more dismissive of these people who profess to follow the teachings of Jesus while they snicker at the idea of their fellow humans writhing in a fiery hell. I think that anyone who would condone the mass suffering of others as a fitting counterpoint to their eternal reward as pretty undeserving of that reward in the first place.

So here’s my take: the rapture is a hoot, and those who wish to be raptured are morons who deserve every bit of the ridicule that they received this week. If Christ is their teacher, they’ve never passed the first grade. Here’s my real question for those who would welcome an apocalypse as their reward:

How Glenn Beck Incites Violence

The above clip is one of the more succinct examples of what Glenn Beck spends just about every day doing: taking historical facts, arranging them in a shady jigsaw puzzle of innuendo, and then identifying individuals that he claims are diabolically plotting to destroy America. It’s the equivalent of taking the noodles out of your bowl of alphabet soup, arranging them into a death threat, and then attributing the threat to someone you’ve never met.

Frances Fox Piven is a Professor of Political Studies and Social Science who, like many patriotic Americans, was a radical in the sixties.  How radical?  She co-authored a paper suggesting that, were the welfare system to be taxed to the point of failure, it might result in a government-backed mandatory wage for all citizens.  If that sounds like socialism, it’s only because it is socialism.

However, Ms. Piven’s greatest accomplishment was not the destruction of the welfare system or the end of capitalism.  Instead, she is best credited for introducing the tie-in between voter registration and the DMV.  So, the woman who made it easier for Americans to vote is Beck’s poster child for the forces that are out to destroy our country.

So, it comes out that, in the last two years, since Beck started his prime time crusade to malign her, Ms. Piven has received a steady stream of nasty death threats.  Really nasty:

“I got e-mails that said, ‘Die You Cunt’, and ‘May cancer find you soon'”, she tells The Progressive. “And people are posting my address on the Internet with their messages that are really crude and ugly and violent.”

Piven’s politics were radical, but not as radical as suggesting that the founding of the U.N. and the abolishment of slavery were merely pieces of an anarchist/communist plot to destroy America.  But Mr. Beck and his blackboard are perfectly willing to float that hypothesis as if it were fact. And, once floated, he’s happy to then single out Ms. Piven as a key architect of this attack on America. Frances Fox Piven, a woman who cared deeply about all Americans and devoted her life to ending poverty, is a radical anarchist out to destroy our way of life.  Glenn Beck isn’t trying to protect us — he’s just making sure that we know that the plot to destroy our country exists, and Piven is one of the people responsible.

Beck’s acolytes believe him to be sincere, and they’re willing to take his word that Piven poses a threat to their security.  As I’ve been blogging here, Beck fans have loaded up their cars and set off to kill people that Beck identified similarly before.

It’s tempting to equate what Beck does to yelling fire in a crowded theater.  But what he does is far more insidious.  Imagine what your life would be like if you were the constant recipient of nasty, sometimes obscene death threats.  There should be laws against this type of malicious maligning of people whose politics don’t agree with his; there should certainly be human decency that says, “I’m not going to inspire this type of behavior”.  Beck has no such decency, and he isn’t engaging in political debate.  What he’s doing is far more personal, sadistic, and cruel.  And it will likely result in murder soon. It’s kind of a miracle that it hasn’t yet.

Where There’s Smoke (And Bullets)

Three things about the recent, tragic Tucson shootings:

1. Clearly, shooter Jared Lee Loughner was not a Tea Party member or Sarah Palin/Glenn Beck acolyte. His political views, presumably inspired by such diverse thinkers as Ayn Rand, Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler, are not mainstream or cliched. He’s an independent thinker whose views aren’t neatly classified as “liberal” or “conservative”. Reports are that he had met Congressperson Giffords at a previous community meeting and wasn’t happy with the encounter. So the odds that his inspiration for the assault had anything to do with Sarah Palin’s crosshair graphic are unlikely.

2. Violent, paranoid political discourse inspires mass murderers. Maybe not Loughner, but Byron Williams was directly influenced by Glenn Beck when he set out with a car full of weaponry to murder workers at the ACLU and Tides Foundation. Kenneth Kimberly was arrested before he killed anyone, but he admits that he was directly inspired by Glenn Beck to start making and stockpiling grenades. And Giffords wasn’t present when the glass door to her Tucson office was either shot or kicked in, hours after her pro vote on health care. With all of the evidence that violent rhetoric absolutely inspires violent actions, how could people not assume that there was a connection in Tucson? I bet even Sarah Palin assumed that Loughlin had seen her crosshair chart when she first heard about the shooting.

3. So conservatives can pout about how unfair it is that MSNBC and all of their liberal critics are calling for more civil discourse in light of this mass murder. And they are technically accurate that Loughner was, most likely, not directly influenced by the cross hairs on Palin’s propaganda; Beck’s paranoid rantings about Obama planning to kill 10% of the population; Michelle Bachmann’s crazed fantasies about communists in the white house; Sharon Angle’s readiness to resort to “second amendment remedies”, et cetera, et cetra, et cetra. But there’s a lot of smoke here, and there’s a lot of ammunition. So the calls for calmer political discourse in light of the violent travesty in Tucson are well-warranted, because we don’t need to follow it up with the next Byron Williams succeeding in killing people that Beck highlights on his blackboard, or the next Kenneth Kimberly lobbing grenades at imagined communists. These people are directly inspired by the right wing rhetoric. There’s no denying that.

Why the TSA Groping is a Big, Big Problem

tsa_before-after

Photo by Raymond Mendosa

I’ve been pretty horrified by the new TSA security procedures since I first caught wind of them.  The Boing Boing blog has been doing excellent coverage of the fiasco, providing the best examples of how damaging these new exposing and groping procedures can be to innocent Americans, and why crossing over from threat detection to threat assumption policies is bad, bad, bad for our democracy.

I’ve also been hearing the backlash against the complaints.  A number of people had relatively painless holiday travel experiences last week and are now saying it was all a lot of hype.  But I continue to consider a level of terrorist prevention this extreme to be more likely to traumatize more Americans than the threat they’re protecting us from will.  It’s not about the 95% of the population who, like me, can pretty much shrug and say “I don’t care that much if you photograph me semi-nude” or, “I can tolerate a little more radiation — it’s not like this is the only place I’m exposed to it” or, even, “I get that you’re going to touch my private parts and that this isn’t molestation, you’re not enjoying it either”.  It’s about the rape and molestation victims, past and future, as well as the people who, for personal or religious reasons, can’t minimize the trauma of being exposed to or groped by strangers.  Not the majority of us, but a very significant minority,

So then I see an article like this, which has the top TSA official basically saying to parents (like me), “don’t explain to your children that what the TSA agent is about to do to you is necessary, but should never, ever be tolerated by strangers when Mommy and/or Daddy aren’t right here with you and it isn’t absolutely required for security reasons”, but, instead saying, “tell your kid that the TSA agent is just playing a harmless game that involves touching you”.  Because strangers touching children’s genitalia is, of course, no big deal and the priority here is to make sure everyone is calm and smiling as they submit to these procedures.  Months later, when lecherous Uncle Eddie wants to play the same game, well, Mommy and Daddy know about this game and said it was okay for the TSA agent to play, so they’re not going to consider this a problem…

Security at the cost of the humiliation of abused adults and government approved molesting of children terrorizes citizens.  It doesn’t make us more secure, even if it’s not a “big deal” for most of us.  This is a government-sanctioned human rights violation, and we really shouldn’t tolerate it.

Why Does The Right Attack Nonprofits?

Robert Egger’s brilliant response to Rush Limbaugh’s recent diatribe against nonprofit employees. is a must watch, particularly the last five seconds or so, which neatly sum it up. Limbaugh claims that nonprofit employees are “lazy idiots” and “rapists” of the economy. Wow, like what he does for a living is so healthy…

This a month or so after a madman was stopped on the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco with a car full of weapons, headed to kill people at the ACLU and the Tides Foundation. Both of these organizations work to protect people’s rights, the ACLU being the better known of the two. Lesser known Tides’ mission is to promote social justice and maintain a healthy, sustainable environment. Why did the killer target them?

Glenn Beck makes his living by standing in front of a blackboard and espousing paranoid-inducing theories about democratic cabals aimed at destroying the American way of life.  His rants have succeeded in getting White House officials, such as Van Jones, removed, and, along with other Fox News conspirators, ACORN, a voter registration organization, disbanded.  In the first case, the White House, shamefully, asked Jones to resign in the face of all of the ridiculous criticism.  In the second, Fox News aired doctored footage alleging that ACORN helped pimps and prostitutes, creating falsified scandals that drove the nonprofit under.  ACORN was investigated, and the investigation found some evidence of tax evasion and questionable destruction of documents, but, notably, absolutely no consulting on prostitution practices or, as was widely alleged, improper handling of voter registrations. But all of this started when Beck chose them — as he did with Tides — as fodder for his unsubstantiated and false conspiracy theories.

I sum up Limbaugh’s comments as his standard, poorly-thought out rambling.  He meant some particular nonprofit or sort of nonprofit, and chose far too broad a term to make a lucid point.  But I question whether Limbaugh is ever capable of making lucid points. If we didn’t have the evidence of the bust for Oxycontin abuse, it wouldn’t be hard to still recognize drug-addled behavior.

What Beck does is far more insidious and dangerous. Like Limbaugh, he’s not concerned at all with honestly portraying the people and groups he discusses.  He’s building a narrative, one that the viewers can watch and feel that they have a special stake in, relayed by his tear-filled eyes and cautioning tone. This intimate dialogue is really engaging.  But Beck is entirely unwilling to be accountable for the lies that he spreads, even when they come close to inspiring mass murder.

It’s completely unintuitive and bizarre that nonprofits — poorly resourced organizations that struggle to do the work that our government does less and less of — are lambasted and threatened by the people that rally loudest for eliminating government programs.  We’re the ones who are getting important work done with funding that is volunteered, not assessed.  Most nonprofits have no leftist or rightwing agenda — they have clearly stated missions that they’re trying to serve (as Egger’s video makes clear).  Maybe Beck and Limbaugh should be a bit more appreciative of the fact that we enable mouths to be fed, museums and parks to stay open, and air to continue to be breathable in a country where the government can get fewer and fewer social services funded.

Dr. Rand Paul, The First Sign Of The Apocalypse

I’ll happily give Kentucky’s Republican Senatorial candidate, Dr. Rand Paul, a pass and assume that he is no racist.  In fact, his objection to the portion of the civl rights act that denies businesses the right to discriminate based on race is very consistent with Libertarian views. The problem is that those Libertarian views are based on an idealistic world view that is so radical that electing them to high offices would be the first step towards armageddon.

In this MSNBC interview, Rachel Maddow tries to pin Paul to a yes or no on the question of whether he would support a modern-day F. W. Woolworth‘s right to refuse to serve blacks, and he dances around the question so deftly that you’d think he studied under Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, mostly by throwing his own red herring back by equating race-based discrimination with the right to bear arms.

I think Rachel missed the talking point.  The question is, if he takes the absolute Libertarian view that Government should not regulate private businesses, then is he saying that health inspection should be abolished? Zoning ordinances? Safety standards?  It seems so, as, early on in the segment, he’s quoted as saying that the ADA might have gone too far, and suggests that requiring that a business install an elevator for a disabled employee would be unnecessary if they just gave the employee a first floor office.

What is so surreal about the arc of the Tea Party from rage-filled yahoos upset that “the America they grew up in” wouldn’t have elected a black man President to their adoption of Libertarian, “government should keep it’s hands off of everything” ideals is that they are pushing this just as the world is reeling from disasters caused by lack of governmental regulation.  The financial crisis occurred as Federal regulators ignored people who were screaming at them that Bernie Maddow was running a pyramid scheme while the big banks were playing additional con games.  The gulf has just been traumatically infected by the largest oil disaster in history because the Mineral Management Service was too busy partying with the execs to regulate them.

The proof that people would suffer if government didn’t regulate private businesses is screaming from the front page headlines.  And Rand Paul, a guy whose more idealistic than any hippie ever was, has secured a senatorial nomination.

The SysAdmin Trap

Terry Childs is Guilty.

In mid-2008, Terry Childs, the (then) System Administrator for the City of San Francisco, was called into a meeting with the COO (his boss); the CIO of the SF Police Department; a Human Resources representative; and, unbeknownst to Terry, by phone, a few of the engineers he managed. He was ordered to share the system passwords for the network. He made them up. Subsequently challenged with this fact, he refused to reveal the passwords, ending up in a city jail cell.

Close to two years later, Childs has been found guilty of felonious computer tampering and faces up to five years in prison (he’ll likely be let off in two, with his racked time counting toward the total).

Open and shut, right?  The city claims, and the court found it believable, that Childs’ obstinate refusal to provide passwords resulted in over $200,000 lost city revenue.  He lied to his employer.  He held the city ransom.

Childs’ defense has always been that he was protecting the city’s network.  He wasn’t going to share sensitive passwords with people who, in his estimation, wouldn’t respect the sensitivity of those passwords, and would likely share them other employees and contractors.

To my mind, while that’s a valid concern, it doesn’t clear him.  He still works for the person who was asking for the passwords, and he was obligated to provide them.

The real crime here, though, is not that Childs’ hoarded the keys to the system. It’s that the meeting occurred at all, and the reasons that it came to the point of a stand-off are all too criminally common.  Was Childs guilty? Sure! But others shared guilt in bringing it to that point.  Consider:

  • The System Administrator reported to the COO.  No CIO? No VPIT? No IT Director?  This means that there was a gap between the absolute tech and the non-technical businessperson, and that’s a critical layer, particularly for an organization as large as the government of a major U.S. city.
  • There were no policies governing use of system passwords. The fact that Childs was allowed to be the sole keeper of the entire network was a lapse in operations that never should have been allowed.
  • Childs was a city employee for ten years.  If there were concerns about his trustworthiness or reliability, shouldn’t they have been addressed earlier in that decade?

All too often, IT departments are isolated from the organizations they serve.  Part of this is due to the nature of technology work and techies — we speak a language of our own; enjoy working with the tools that many people find obstructive and confusing; and the majority of us are not very good at casual socializing. More of it is due to the fact that most people — including the CEOs and VPs — don’t get technology, and don’t know how to integrate technology tools and purveyors into the organization.

But that lack of comprehension shouldn’t be a license for persecution.  Everyone’s a loser here, most personally Childs, but the city suffered from a situation they created by not investing properly in technology.  And, by investing, I don’t just mean hiring the right amount of staff and equipment — I mean that CEOs, COOs and everyone up the chain has to step out of their comfort zone and either learn more; hire staff and consultants to vet and translate; or, optimally, both.  The CEO doesn’t have to be as knowledgeable as Bill Gates, but they have to have educated oversight on how IT is run that “gets” what IT is about and how the technology practitioners operate.

As much as Terry Childs is guilty of a crime, he’s tenfold a victim of one, and it’s a cautionary tale for any of us who work in environments where management is happy to let us build a big, isolated kingdom.

What drove Terry Childs to commit a felony was a crime unto itself.