Editorial: The IT guys know it all
It appears the federal government is at last grasping a reality it could have learned years ago simply by reading the Dilbert cartoon strip: In today’s technologically driven world, the IT staff is all-powerful.
That’s IT as in Information Technology, or, as Wikipedia defines it, “the use of computers and telecommunications systems to store, receive, transmit and manipulate data.”
Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old National Security Agency contractor who disclosed the government’s extensive monitoring of phone and email communications, was an IT worker. Snowden is hopping around the globe to avoid prosecution for his disclosures, which he considered to be in the public interest.
Army Private Bradley Manning, 25, now on trial for leaking hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was an insider with technical skills, too, with motivations similar to Snowden’s.
These cases – and others less profound – have government officials scrambling to rethink their management of young and gifted individuals who are products of a technologically centered subculture that verges on libertarianism in its views of privacy and authority.
“The geeks who leak,” is what Time magazine called them. A security specialist told the New York Times that such system administrators have “godlike access to systems they manage.”
Tell us about it.
The Dilbert strip, which mocks modern office life, has long satirized the consequences of concentrating phenomenal cosmic power in the hands of technicians who work better with bytes than with people. And as anyone who has struggled to remember a new password or master a new program knows, in most of today’s workplaces, nothing much can get done without the training and support provided by IT specialists.
As it turns out, what’s true in the business world may be even more valid in the shadowy realms of government agencies insistent on secrecy, for better and worse, in their efforts to serve the public’s interest. The more complex and ambitious the snooping system, say, the more reliant it is on the administrators who keep it running – 1,000 of them, as it turns out, at the NSA alone.
According to the Times, the people who lead these agencies are tightening their hiring processes and internal procedures to thwart future leaks. For example, the Times reported, the NSA has implemented a “two-man rule” requiring a second check on each attempt to access sensitive information.
As efforts to make government less efficient go, that seems a logical one. But it also seems, ultimately, doomed to be leaky as well – because of the nature of people who excel in today’s highly technical work. Some are bound to be – as Time put it – “hacktivists” with a deep belief in the free flow of information.
What’s more, their mistrust of government is shared – albeit in milder form – by many Americans. According to a poll in Time, 63 percent of respondents were concerned that the government would misuse the information it collects, while 54 percent believe Snowden did a good thing by revealing what the government was up to.
It is appropriate that the government do all it can to preserve secrets whose disclosure would put lives at risk. But these secrets must be kept to an absolute minimum, because at a philosophical level, at least, the IT crowd has this one right: The best government is a transparent government.