Open Tech Today - Top Stories

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Disappear (with a little help from Microsoft)

Microsoft can make you disappear. I'm not talking about science fiction. Disappear in real life. In many ways, your life is a matter of public record. Or public records, plural. And if access to those public records disappears, you disappear (at least if you need something from government).

In the U.S. (and probably most countries), not enough attention is given to securing public records for future use. Paper records are bad enough. The situation is worse for electronic records.

The issue: long-term access to public information

The problem: governments are not doing enough to ensure future access to documents that created electronically and do not exist on paper.

Maybe you are thinking . . . so what?

Imagine that some government agency replaces a computer system or an IT company decides to change the software it sells to that agency, and "suddenly" one future day a civil servent helping you discovers that he/she can no longer access records on your social security, taxes, an application for a license, or a birth certificate. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe it's 10 or 20 years from now. There is no paper record. Only an electronic file that cannot be opened by that civil servant's computer, or anyone's computer. You have a problem.

Still not worried? Join the club. Neither are most governments. And this presents a huge risk to all of us. Governments create thousands of digital documents (and videos of public hearings and speeches) every day. Fortunately, a few people are thinking about it. Doug Robinson, the executive director of the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) spoke yesterday about the failure of most U.S. states to address protection of digital public records.

One answer: open data formats. Did I just get too technical for you? It's not that hard.

Most documents people create on their computers use Microsoft. They save it in .doc or .xls or .ppt. Those are the formats -- the envelope around the document you created. And, Microsoft owns that envelope (or format). They can change it, start selling a new format bundled with computers or whatever. And at some point that could leave you (or a government) with a computer unable to access your documents saved in the old format.

Now your documents have effectively disappeared. You have effectively disappeared, at least in terms of accessing public records needed to get public services, personal information held by governments or public records you might want or need.

Pure fantasy? Think how fast technologies change. Can you still use those old floppy disks? How about your 8-track cassette tapes? Punch cards? That electronic hotel key you forgot to return? Are .doc files so different?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Instead of looking at the negative side of this we should all be seeing it for the blessing in disguise that this truly represents. I am anxiously awaiting further instructions on how I can speed up the process to my disappearance! Suggestions please! to stevevlee @ yahoo much appreciated.