Question: How have advances in information technology
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: For a very long period of time,
starting in the 1960s and then into the 1970s, computers were seen as a
way information technology in general was seen as a way of making
government bureaucracy more efficient and effective. So, the drive was
always productivity, efficiency, doing more with less. Maybe in the
1990s or so, we had another dimension come into this picture and that is
to be more consumer friendly, or citizen friendly in the services that
the government provides. But these are just two very specific ways of
looking at how government interacts with society because it looks at the
citizens as consumers as transactional partners with the government.
They go for efficiency to lower the cost, or you go for consumer
friendliness or transactional partner friendliness in order to provide
some service quality.
I believe that electronic government
information or technology in government must go much further than that.
We as a society have a right to know better what the government is
doing, to engage with the government and to have a government in place
that is willing and able to use the technological tools available to
engage us citizens. That’s currently not happening or not happening at a
sufficiently high level. We are still in this old fashioned mode of
thinking about transaction efficiency and user friendliness.
Question: Is the U.S. government lagging in information technology?
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: The U.S. government lags behind
in electronic government quite a bit large because whenever you need to
create an electronic government transaction, software, you need to
involve a number of different government stakeholders. And they just
despise each other usually, and they hate when the other side has access
to their information and data. Data silos and information silos in
government are one way of defining power and influence. And so
obliterating those silos really reduces the power of individual
departments and agencies and that’s why they are not keen on doing
And let me give you what I thought a wonderful example
is, if I may. There was a Web site on moving called “Moving” and it
helped people who were moving house to do the change of address form, to
move the electricity and the gas and the utilities over the telephone,
to also hire perhaps a moving van and so forth. It was a one-stop shop
for all of this. And it was a public-private partnership that made this
all possible. And it was a huge success. People really loved this
Government agencies realized that and they thought,
gosh, this means there’s real traffic to be generated, and immediately
what they did was to leave that umbrella, that one stop shop and created
their own little shops in order to drive traffic to their own little
shops. Of course, the sun was really more – the sun was more than just
the parts put together and once you take these parts apart and everybody
has this little shop the consumers were really frustrated again and
don’t want to go to 15 or 16 different websites in order to change their
addresses. The problem therefore is that when you breakdown the silos,
you create value, when you resurrect the silos, you destroy value.
That’s something that government agencies theoretically understand, but
have practical difficulties realizing and putting in place.
I am really more interested in another aspect. I am really interested
in the way by which government in the United States has now decided to
make public a lot of the information that it collects. My colleague and
friend, Beth Novak, and others have really pushed this very hard in the
Obama Administration and I think that’s exactly right. What we need is
more information that the government collects, not personal
information, but general information to be shared with the public at
large, with NGO’s, with the society at large so that they can then look
at that data and really see what is happening in our society. We now
have the software tools to do that, we now have the interest in the
public to do that, that’s why we need to move ahead and make more and
more of that government information freely available.
Question: Does the Obama Administration approach information
technology differently than its predecessors?
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Oh yes. There’s a huge
difference. If you look at the website that the Obama Administration
set up to be able to trace the money of the stimulus package going into
the economy and you can see to which communities, which counties, to
what companies and institutions, organizations, the money goes. How
much as been dispensed, what was the impact on employment and so forth.
This data is fabulously well designed and presented through a
geographic interface and it is simply superb; very, very different from
the previous administration. In fact, the outgoing Clinton-Gore
Administration put in place, for example, a website with the
Environmental Protection Agency where the Environmental Protection
Agency made accessible a self-reporting inventory of toxic waste and
linked it to a geographic information system so that people could
actually look at their neighborhood and see whether there were any toxic
waste repositories in their neighborhood.
When that went
online, a lot of people started pressuring the companies in their
neighborhood that had toxic waste to clean up and to get their act
together because land value would adjust. And so there was almost a
wonderful market for this as well as a democratic force behind it. Of
course, the George W. Bush Administration, after 911, took the website
down, ostensibly because of a security risk. Terrorists could access
the toxic waste **** and find out where the toxic waste was I this
country. I not so sure the security risk was really was that high. I
think a lot of people in the – I suspect a lot of people in the Bush
Administration connected to some of the toxic wasters were quite happy
to put that database offline.
Question: How might the
eGovernment revolution affect international intelligence?
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Well, first of all, if we
permit people to have access to government information, we don’t
necessarily become more vulnerable. The cyber security task is mostly
one focused on keeping the infrastructure up and running. And we are
very vulnerable there. They’re very vulnerable not just on the internet
information structure, but on the energy and electrical infrastructure
as well. And they’re vulnerable because for many years, even decades,
we have increased the efficiency of the infrastructure, but limited the
investment and the redundancy and robustness of the infrastructure. And
that makes all these infrastructures prime targets for hackers and
terrorists around the world, whether they are organized by nation/state
or whether they are non-combatant terrorists, Al Qaeda's ilk or anything
else. I think we need to spend more money on that. I think we need to
spend more money on securing the infrastructure, on knowing what the
other side is doing. The federal government does not have yet its act
together on cyber-security. That’s still a big problem, it will require
all the major stakeholders to come together and it will require some
legislative change as well and it will require a different mindset of
The missiles of tomorrow are not going to going to come through the sky;
they’re coming through the fiber optic networks.
Recorded April 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen