Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire on New Zealand

Toby Manhire: MPs out of sync with this newfangled e-thingy

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Maurice Williamson sounded woefully out of touch this week. Photo / APN
Maurice Williamson sounded woefully out of touch this week. Photo / APN

Most terrifyingly of all, Maurice Williamson is probably right. Probably he is one of the National MPs best qualified to comment on the information-security ineptness unearthed this week.

"I can say, I think, with a reasonable amount of credibility," began the veteran minister during the urgent parliamentary debate on the Ministry of Social Development debacle, "that I am one of only a few members in this House who made my living developing computer systems before I came to Parliament. Yes, it was actually prior to the internet coming to New Zealand."

He continued: "Even so, there were communication systems on the airline system that allowed people to hack into the mainframes of stuff we developed."

Hack? As surely Williamson must know, in the current case, Keith Ng didn't hack anything. The respected data journalist accessed the information from the Work and Income public kiosk computer by clicking an "open" command and loading a server - the sort of thing millions of people do in offices every day.

Hacking? No. No matter how Paula Bennett and John Key might have tried on Monday to paint it, there was no digital ninjutsu required here.

There was more from Williamson. Such security breaches very likely happened under the last government, he said, "but it did not quite get to be as exposed in those days because there were not things like bloggers around who felt it was really neat to get some coverage for blogging that stuff".

"Bloggers", Uncle Maurice? They sound just awful. "Yeah, blogging only came into fashion just towards the end of the Labour Government. Blogging has been around only four or five years now."

That blogging did not exist before 2008 may come as a surprise to the regulars at the country's biggest such blog, the National-friendly Kiwiblog - "Fomenting Happy Mischief since 2003". As it might to the more liberally inclined crowd at Public Address (established 2002), where Ng published his scoop.

It's frightening to think of what all these parliamentarians' remarks - from the infamous "Skynet" speech by Katrina ("fairly savvy about computers") Shanks, to the repeated reference to "blogger" as if it were an exotic foreign species, to Gerry Brownlee's contribution this week ("Very few people would write cheques these days, for example, preferring to do everything by electronic means") - look to someone under the age of, say, 25.

As the push for e-government gathers pace, a basic literacy in the "e" part is a reasonable demand. And literacy is the right word. For people born after the internet, fluency is second-nature.

For many of the more mature people who account for most of our leaders in business, in the public sector and in politics, however, you need to learn this stuff.

The worry is that without that basic vocabulary, without the right questions being asked, the right priorities set, you engender the sort of slipshod culture that, say, fails to act on repeated warnings about a gaping security hole.

And that can only be exacerbated by a different sort of culture of disregard - for individuals' privacy. After the Social Development Minister released two beneficiaries' confidential details in 2009, there was no contrition - indeed, it was "a bit of a lesson about what happens when you put your story out there".

When the Human Rights Commission concluded she had breached the pair's privacy, still no apology - and she refused to rule out doing a similar thing again.

Put it this way: Ng and his source, Ira Bailey, have promised not to reveal any private details from the Ministry of Social Development files. The minister hasn't.

It's encouraging, at least, to see that the terms of reference for the review of "wider information systems security" explicitly promises an assessment of the ministry's "culture". That must not fall by the wayside.

It is fair to ask, too, whether the digital revolution is embraced by policy-makers for all the right reasons. Undoubtedly, there are often savings to be made in the move to e-government - but those that should not be the guiding principle. There is something troubling about the priorities implied in the current e-government strategy: "Driving change for lower-cost, higher-quality public services."

"We live in a digital age," announced the Prime Minister this week. Indeed we do. And as we gaze anxiously at events on Planet Kiosk, we deserve leaders equipped to lead in a digital age.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire is also a columnist for APN's Listener magazine.

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