Category Archives: Politics

Posts related to politics or where I share my own political perspectives and opinions.

Economist’s Briefing on “The Leaky Corporation”

This week’s Economist has an authoritative briefing “The Leaky Corporation” that reflects some of the same trends I illustrated in my recent blog post “Why Wikileaks Doesn’t Matter.” The article reflects the opinion of several experts and studies that provide more detail and authority to the same issues I raised. It is well worth a read.

Why Wikileaks Doesn’t Matter

Wikileaks doesn’t matter in the manner that many of our leaders in government and the corporate world seem to believe. Since the release of several hundred thousand classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there have been a number of efforts to shut the site down or punish those involved:

Activities have come to light recently about “Team Themis” proposing a set of activities to discredit Wikileaks and its supporters to executives at Bank of America. It is believed that Julian Assange has a cache of secret documents and e-mails from a major US bank, generally believed to be Bank of America, that he may release in the event of his arrest or extradition. Team Themis was led by HBGary Federal, an information security firm and also included Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies. This incident has been covered well by other bloggers, and I will not re-hash the incidents here. If you want more information you can read this excellent summary from CI Law blogger Anne Lee Gibson. Kirby Pleassas of Plessas Expert Networks wrote a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the specific legal and ethical issues related to the Team Themis proposal. Kirby’s post is what got me off the couch to finally write this post.

All of this activity suggests that our corporate and government leaders believe that silencing Wikileaks will bring about an end to the problems and challenges that the organization generates. Quite the contrary, Wikileaks is only relevant of an example of broader trends. The first trend is increasing transparency with which we must all become accustomed. The second is the continuing disintermediation of traditional media as a source of authoritative information and means to disseminate information widely.

Mister Universe

You can't stop the signal.

Radical Transparency: We’re All Naked Now

One would need to be truly oblivious to not have noticed that since the advent of the Internet we are all sharing more about ourselves, whether or not we deliberately choose to do so. We’re all likely aware of how much more we’re sharing with a wider circle on platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Sometimes we share more than we know or would consciously choose, and there are consequences both positive and negative that come from this sharing.

Companies and government agencies are more transparent today as well:

  • Individual employees are sharing information about their work experience via social networks. In some rare instances this information will be very sensitive. Sometimes this information, placed in the appropriate analytical context, can be far more revealing than anyone would expect. For example, a high-level employee with a lot of Foursquare check-ins at a Starbucks in the distant headquarters city of an industry rival might suggest a possible merger or acquisition.
  • Search engines are making ever-improving search functionality available that reveals information hidden on servers inadvertently connected to the public Internet. We use the “site:” operator on Google to find all kinds of Excel, Powerpoint and PDF documents companies often don’t know they’ve effectively made public.
  • Companies and government agencies continue to increase their reliance on partners, supplies, consultants and contractors. Each one of these interactions moves some corporate information to a more vulnerable environment. Traditionally CI professionals have known to watch the activities of partners and suppliers to predict corporate actions. For example, you might use information from an employee of a strategic parts supplier to estimate the unit production potential of a competitor.
  • It is becoming easier for people without Ph.Ds to perform in-depth analysis of large data sets using readily available tools. Analysis of these data sets reveals activities that might otherwise be considered extremely sensitive. Groups like the Sunlight Foundation are applying this sort of analysis to government data to reveal specific details about government activities.

Everybody Has A Printing Press, Too

It’s self-evident that blogs, Twitter, social networks and the web give each of us a platform to publish information we might not have had otherwise. If you’re not yet convinced of this you can take a look back at my summary of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Better yet, read this fantastic book right now.

There have been a number of corporate and government efforts to shut down Wikileaks and prevent individuals from accessing the information revealed on the site. This has resulted in something of a cat and mouse game of the content being mirrored to multiple sites available from different countries and unique domain name addresses. In this case the mouse has beaten the cat. Wikileaks illustrates just how difficult it can be for government and corporate entities to silence a determined group of technically-savvy users on the global network.

Government and corporate leaders have relied on the ethics and self-interest of traditional journalists to keep some information from seeing an audience. Even the muckiest muckraker might be bribed or threatened with a loss of access presented to the journalist, her editor or publisher.

  • Non-journalists may not be aware of nor feel confined by traditional journalistic standards or ethics. These standards are nebulous enough in professional journalism as it is.
  • Individuals and groups may prioritize resolution of grievances over on-going access. They’re not here to be journalists– they just want the damn potholes fixed.
  • Parties may disseminate information anonymously. While it may be harder than most people think to remain truly anonymous on the Internet it can be done with a little care and application of minimal technical skill.
  • Some groups have outright malicious and destructive intent.
  • Criminal organization could begin to use the publishing of sensitive or classified information for their own ends.

Implications and What To Do

We cannot silence Wikileaks, that much is certain. There are too many mirrors and multiple technical workarounds to keep the information available. Even if we could silence Wikileaks it would not matter in the long run. Already alternative organizations are standing up to continue the mission of increasing transparency. These organizations and sites are only the tip of the spear of the broader trends towards transparency.

So what are we to do? These trends require some fundamental changes in how several corporate functions operate. Here are some specifics I’ve considered. If you have additional examples please feel free to share in the comments.

Human Resources should recognize the need to give employees reasons not to leak. HR along with corporate counsel should strengthen policies to protect and support internal whistleblowers. The bureaucratic imperative has too often been to silence and punish the person who brings problems to senior management’s attention. These are the people who are trying to make positive change inside of the organization– the “good guys” in any sober analysis. If whistleblowers are protected, listened to and their grievances addressed they will be less likely to leak information externally. The first step is to provide the technical means for anonymous reporting of issues and wrong-doings. Managers should be taught how to appropriately handle this kind of information from their direct reports.

Information Security needs to develop a true hierarchy of information protection and increasingly protective means to store and distribute sensitive information. Governments and corporations have erred too far towards trying to protect absolutely everything for the sake of simplicity. The problem with this approach is that operationally critical yet non-sensitive information is treated as top secret. Even low-level employees have to be allowed into the inner sanctum just to do their jobs. Once they’re in there they have access to all kinds of information. Extremely sensitive information needs to have distribution very controlled and be protected through strong measures.

Public Relations may need to move closer to senior management to offer advice on the consequences of the disclosure of certain corporate strategies, policies or plans. PR can be the voice of public perception and skepticism. Organizations will do well to understand that they are judged not by their intentions but by public perception. Many senior officials clearly forget their fallibility in the public eyes. Dennis Kozlowski, anyone?

Greater Transparency and the Competitive Intelligence Professional

Competitive Intelligence professionals are once again faced with a set of trends that will give everyone broader access to the corporate secrets the uncovering of which was once our bread and butter. There was a time when getting your competitor’s annual report made you some kind of CI ninja. This sort of information is now less than a commodity. The secrets and details that once might have only been able to be estimated from considerable primary research and analysis are likely to become more freely available. Once again we will need to move in the direction of excellent analysis and interpretation on the galaxy of information available about our competitors, our industries and the business environment.

Ethics will remain a key concern of the profession, and we must have a conversation about the ethics of using leaked information. We’ve seen examples such as the case of Coke employees trying to sell sensitive documents to Pepsi, where the ethics are very clear. We would all like to believe that in those circumstances we would make the same ethical choice. What are the ethical considerations when a competitor’s information is leaked publicly on a social network or a site such as Wikileaks?

Finally, competitive intelligence can play an educational role in the firm. We should describe our methods and practices to information security to let them know how we can use information that is published and leaked from our competitors to develop our insights. This will help them develop methods and policies to protect the firm’s information. They will not be able to prevent all leaks, so it will be important to minimize the least damaging ones. Some CI groups are already doing something similar to this. As these trends towards transparency progress this may become an important value add of the CI function.

Revenge of the Nerds

John Hodgman is one of my favorite nerd comedians.  I really enjoyed his exploration of the nerd aesthetic (uncertain, questioning) versus jock aesthetic (certainty, confidence) and ribbing of Barack Obama to determine whether or not he is truly the first nerd president of the modern age.  Hodgman reminds us that some have even gone so far as to suggest that Obama is the Kwisatz Haderach.

America 2.0: A New Year’s Resolution?

In the final days of 2008 as we take stock of where we’ve been and chart the course to where we want to go next, I read Tom Friedman’s latest Op-Ed from the New York Times with much interest.  Despite the lack of specifics (or maybe because of it) I agree with the general concept.

We need a reboot. We need a build out. We need a buildup. We need a national makeover. That is why the next few months are among the most important in U.S. history. Because of the financial crisis, Barack Obama has the bipartisan support to spend $1 trillion in stimulus. But we must make certain that every bailout dollar, which we’re borrowing from our kids’ future, is spent wisely.

It has to go into training teachers, educating scientists and engineers, paying for research and building the most productivity-enhancing infrastructure — without building white elephants. Generally, I’d like to see fewer government dollars shoveled out and more creative tax incentives to stimulate the private sector to catalyze new industries and new markets. If we allow this money to be spent on pork, it will be the end of us.

The stimulus package that’s soon to be hashed out should take a portfolio approach to economic recovery.  Some of the programs will obviously need to be structured to have an immediate impact on economic activity.  This will include things like tax reductions, tax rebates, block grants to state and local governments and extension of unemployment benefits.

Longer-term projects with anticipated ROI greater than their initial investment will also need to be included in the portfolio.  I really dislike the idea that my tax dollars are being spent with no regard for any return I or the nation will see if we spend those funds– hence my disagreement with a bailout of the auto industry.  This is our opportunity to cut through political opposition and get moving on a number of infrastructure projects such as build-out of public transport (metro to Dulles International Airport, please) and upgrade and repair of bridges, levees and water distribution.  I’ve read some mentions of spending on an electric grid to facilitate the movement of electrons from places where it is easily generated to places electricity is in highest demand to improve efficiency.  A smart grid would make us safer by reducing the likelihood of massive blackouts caused by cascading failures in regional grids.

Grants to universities and other research institutions for hard science research is also money well spent.  Obviously we are in need in considerable research in battery and materials technologies.  Spending on these technologies can help our reformed auto industry (both domestic and foreign) build newer vehicles that are substantially more energy efficient and safer than the cars we drive today.

Any long-term stimulus package also must address the health care industry.  I really have no idea what the initial cause (or set of causes) is for our current health care situation.  It’s not going to get better with an entitlement time bomb, inconsistent or no coverage and what seems to be a complete  mis-alignment of where most of our dollars are spent with where we see the real benefits in improvement in overall quality of life (can somebody PLEASE explain to me why my gym membership is not paid for by my insurance and why I would need to pay for a nutritionist completely out of my own pocket?  Yeah, maybe these things are “elective” and it’s not like I’m getting Botox here!)  In the end I suspect it’s the fact that our current system creates a complete disconnect among the customer/patient, the provider/doctor and the payer/insurance company and creates incentives for parties to maximize their own returns at the expense of all other players.  I have no easy answer, and I don’t believe there is an easy answer.

The stimulus package must jump start the economy and deliver ROI to the taxpayers without putting the government in place of choosing the winners and losers in technology or in the marketplace.  Legislators and bureaucrats are ill-prepared to make objective decisions about which technology or approach is the best approach to deploy high-speed broadband or automobile technologies or any of the other topics that are being considered in the context of an approach to stimulus.  The stimulus package that works best is one that recognizes that in the early days of new approaches to our issues we serve ourselves well to have patience for divergence and pursuit of a broad array of solutions to each of the problems we’re trying to solve.  Let a hundred flowers bloom…

It would be nice to see America’s political leaders move away from old frameworks to consider new options.  Examples include a true re-evaluation of Social Security– and not taking options like private investment of pension funds off the table before the debate begins.  Likewise we can open our political process to explore possibilities such as replacing income tax with a national sales tax.  Putting options on the table for consideration in a broader negotiation of a beneficial way forward is not abandonment of one’s constituents or ideals.  Let’s really move beyond our traditional modes of thinking to be creative.

Rather than continue on with a laundry list of ideas, I want to conclude this long, ill-conceived (and naive?) blog entry with a sense of optimism.  We are coming up on a new year, a new Congress and a new Presidential administration.  We are in a dire situation.  We need to be aware that this is also a moment of great opportunity.  It’s an opportunity for us as a country and even a global community to make the tough choices.  Let’s not lose this moment to lobbying from incumbent moneyed interests.  This is the opportunity for all of us to do what we need to do for the collective “us.”  We will not have many of these chances in the future.  If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity it may not come around again.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Jonathan Haidt on the Politics of Moral Psychology

Anybody who has been reading my blog for a period of time is probably aware that I am a big fan of the free videos made available of presentations at the TED conference.  The topics are great, the speakers are phenomenal and EVERY person who is required to speak in public should be required to watch the fantastic delivery.  If we could all be half as good as these presenters death by PowerPoint would be a thing of the past.

Just released in the TED podcast feed today was a presentation by Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia entitled “The Real Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives.”  The presentation is an examination of the human moral mind, and begins with the hypothesis that we are not born tabula rasa and rather have an innate sense of morality.  As Hiadt shows, liberals and conservatives prioritize five different moral factors  differently, and that these differences are largely common accross national and cultural boundaries.   Take a look and hopefully you’ll agree that, while remaining true to one’s convictions, building an echochamber for ourselves or demonizing the political opposition is not a road to progress.  Let me know what you think.

Medical Outsourcing

In examinations of globalization and outsourcing there has often been a case made that certain categories of jobs will be less likely to be outsourced to markets with lower costs.  Medical services have often been included on that list by commentators such as Thomas Friedman.  Two trends that I have been reading about make me question this notion.  Medical tourism and online prescriptions are two options that lead me to believe that outsourcing and globalization will eat at the edges of even the medical field.  We’ll all be better off for it in the end.

Medical tourism, like the name suggests, is traveling to a different location (usually a foreign country) for medical procedures usually in a lower cost environment.  Medical tourism has moved from sneaking off to Bogota for a nip and a tuck and now involves patients traveling to advanced facilities in “developing” countries for life-saving treatments.

Medical insurance companies often have very complex criteria for the coverage of certain procedures.  Elective procedures have a long-history of not being covered by medical insurance.  Some potentially lifesaving procedures have either been excluded from covereage or are covered only with very high deductibles.  Some of these procedures are available in advanced medical facilities in other countries for costs (including travel) that are well below the deductible charged by American insurance providers.  This lack of true medical coverage may lead some Americans to question the need for traditional insurance policies and look for alternative insurance products that reflect the possibility of travel for many medical treatments in non-emergency situations.  Certainly employers concerned about the runaway costs of healthcare are going to be desperate to find some sort of alternative.  Since employers are technically the consumers of health care we should look to companies large and small to take up this mantra for products that incorporate the realities of medical tourism to gain access to lower costs health care.

This trend injects a level of competition into the market for medical services that is long, long overdue in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world.  New facilities in places like India and Thailand have leapfrogged established health care institutions in terms of technology.  It’s not just lower labor costs but also more effective use of information technologies that make health care more affordable in these markets.

Another interesting trend is online prescriptions.  This is not ordering your herbal Viagra over the Internet.  Rather, this is a medical practitioner that receives inquiries from patients, often in off-hours.  Based on the (admittedly limited at the moment) ability to consult on the patient’s condition remotely a doctor can offer prescriptions and advice to patients.  Consultation will get better as we have ever-improving communications devices such as high-resolution web cameras and specialized medical diagnostic devices in our homes and more of our medical records will be in a digital format that is readily accessible yet secure. This is more immediate and flexible than a visit to one’s primary care physician, and also saves patients from the need to resort to an emergency room visit.  The emergency room has become the after-hours catch all for all medical needs immediate or otherwise.

In the near term there will be winners and losers in these shifts in the market.  Near term medical facilities that cater to the rich and upper middle class will likely lose business to medical tourism.  Insurance companies are going to need to change their offerings to meet the needs of these consumers or run the risk of losing customers to non-traditional medical insurance schemes that reflect the new market realities.  Whenever you remove a segment of the customer population from an insurance pool the harm of that migration is pushed down to those who rely most heavily on the insurance, so their costs to retain coverage are likely to increase in the short term.  Small medical practices will have an opportunity to reform their businesses to move some of the day-to-day work to online offerings and save the office time for more serious cases, extended consultation between doctor and patient and delivering an altogether higher caliber of service.  Reforms to health IT will push the costs of health care management down.  Patients in the destination countries for medical tourism will benefit from improvements to their own local health care infrastructure, the influx of cash paid by medical tourists, and the job opportunities that the industry will create.  In the United States our current model of medical licensing is going to need to change to reflect the new realities.

Many of the benefits of these transformations will come from having a mechanism that suits the patient/customer need– appropriate tools for the job.  Mis-use of emergency rooms for after-hours care and care of the uninsured is beyond disturbing.  Emergency rooms are being asked to handle a workload for which they were not originally intended, and their intended patient base pays the consequences for that.  If we’re really concerns about things like quality healthcare and being able to respond to disasters this is a situation we cannot accept.  Note to Republican politicians: the ability to go to an emergency room does not constitute “access to healthcare” for the uninsured.

Rick Astley for Veep?

I have a strange sense of humor. As evidence of that, I think the Barack Roll video is funny to a degree disproportionate to how funny it probably is to normal people.