When it comes to government and technology, it seems to be just one disaster after another. In the latest example, egregious security errors on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's Web site exposed the personal data of thousands of people to hackers.
The story features several elements that seem depressingly common. According to TechNewsWorld, the company that developed the site did not have to bid for the contract, as the official in charge of the project had once worked for the vendor, Desyne Web Services. The clueless TSA remained unaware of the site's security flaws until an Indiana University graduate student blogged about it. Neither Desyne nor the official who led the project has been punished, and Desyne still hosts Web sites for the TSA.
So I don't know whether to be encouraged or scared by the news that government agencies will step up their use of social networking and other Web 2.0 innovations. A Gartner analyst tells News.com that he expects Web 2.0 to have a "big impact" in 2008 and beyond.
As governments look to replace legacy applications, Web 2.0 technologies will be seen as a way to improve communication among the agencies and to increase interaction with constituents, the analyst says.
Some U.S. agencies are already taking clear steps in that direction. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created a game and other activities on Web site Whyville.com to promote flu vaccinations among children. The woman who leads the CDC's electronic health-marketing efforts tells the Federal Times:
The idea is not to expect everyone to come to us. We've got to go out to wherever people are going for their health information.
In addition, folks can text their ZIP code to a CDC mailbox and receive the locations of the nearest HIV testing sites. That initiative is promoted on the CDC's MySpace page, where visitors can also watch videos, send e-cards and read about CDC's ongoing health campaigns.
Among other government entities experimenting with Web 2.0: the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, both of which have a presence on Second Life; and the Pentagon, which employs podcasts, blogs, mobile devices and RSS feeds in its communication efforts.
Yet the government still has far to go to catch up with the private sector. As IT Business Edge blogger Susan Hall wrote last month, Google and Wikipedia want government agencies to make their Web sites, records and databases more searchable. At a recent Congressional hearing, Google and Wikipedia representatives pointed out that the sites are not organized to be indexed by search engines and some contain code that makes certain pages impossible for engines to "see."
Considering the government's dismal track record on security, it's imperative that government agencies work harder to earn their constituents' trust. Governments must specify what will be done with information people provide, and exactly what will happen if data is lost or things go wrong, says a European Commission research body.