Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Serious Lessons in the Weiner-Gate Farce: Recent Politico Posts

I've posted a bit in Politico's Arena lately, both in response to a question about Weiner-Gate and a congressional stunt to hold law-maker pay until they raise the debt ceiling. These are not serious issues, but both are linked to more complex and deeper problems (and not just Mr. Weiner's.)

Aaron Mannes on 'Weinergate' a cautionary tale?
Rep. Weiner can claim that his account was hacked (because it is the truth) and this incident will just be a blip. But there are two cautionary tales here. First, as my colleague at the University of Maryland, Professor Jen Golbeck, has written:

"Incidents like this aren't what worry me. The bigger concern is when lawmakers, or other users, don't use proper judgment and intentionally post content that ends up being offensive, a security risk, or politically risky. Because it's social rather than technological, learning what to share and how is a tougher challenge than the security needed to keep out hackers."

At the same, this highlights a cybersecurity issue. Getting access to other people's accounts (email, Twitter, Facebook etc.) is all too easy. Often times, it requires no technical expertise -- access is acquired strictly via the sloppiness of the user.

We don't know exactly what happened that Rep. Weiner's account was compromised. But in a talk at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, Gen. Michael Hayden (former director of both the CIA and the NSA) argued that better cybersecurity practices by individuals would make the internet a cleaner environment.

As a comparison (my words, not his), people who live in bad neighborhoods don't leave their doors unlocked and the internet is a pretty bad neighborhood.
Since the story first broke, Weiner's managed to plunge in deeper by giving evasive answers, lending credence to Prof. Golbeck's point that people need to think very carefully about their behavior online. At the same time, however cyber-security just got more serious as well as the Pentagon just announced that some forms of cyber-attacks could be understood as acts of war. Considering the bottomless capacity for human beings to do stupid stuff - this raises the possibility of all kinds of accidental engagements and challenges. Just a thought.

I also responded to the question: Plus lawmaker pay issue a 'stunt'?
All talk of reducing congressional compensation is political grandstanding. As the great Samuel Huntington noted in his "American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony," Americans distrust complex bureaucracies but a modern society require them in order to function. Congress itself has become such a bureaucracy. The problem is not that members of Congress are out of touch with reality (they are, but in a sense so it everyone - reality is greater then any one person's grasp.) The problem is that the issues they face are extremely difficult.

The United States must get its fiscal house in order. Having so much uncertainty surround the international reserve currency is contributing heavily to the anemic global recovery and rising prices. But political stunts, while they may resonate with the public, do little contribute to the hard work of reforming our massive entitlement programs.
Here again, there is silliness and there is the very serious issue that America's fiscal difficulties are breeding international insecurity - which in turn contributes to our fiscal difficulties, which contributes to international insecurity.

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