WASHINGTON – Whatever can be said about the not so vibrant US economy, there is usually agreement that America is and will be the world leader when it comes to IT. Indeed, US companies lead in microprocessors, software, networking systems, on-line retailing, on-line music distribution, smart phones applications, and now social media. You know the names: Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco Systems, Intel, AMD, HP, Dell, Amazon, Facebook, Linkedin, and many, many more.
And yet, recent events show an entirely different picture. A picture of antiquated systems, gigantic failures and alarming vulnerabilities. Let’s start with the US Government. For whatever reasons, Washington is several steps behind when it comes to IT. There seems to be a systemic inability to stay on top of things when it comes to modernizing old IT devices, software and networks. Reliance on obsolete systems means inadequacies and failures, while it creates opportunities for those who want to penetrate US networks, this way compromising or damaging complex systems of great national security value.
Gigantic failures include the epic collapse of the brand new website that was supposed to allow millions of Americans to access the medical insurance exchanges created by Obamacare health law. It was an unmitigated national disaster. It took months to fix the issues stemming from poor design.
Most recently, the US State Department could no longer issue visas to foreigners for several days because of a computer system breakdown. Mind you, this is a key agency of the US Federal Government.
And then we have the unbelievable hacking of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the largest record keeper of all US Government employees. Notwithstanding deliberate efforts to obfuscate and minimize, now we know that 21.5 million (yes, this is million) confidential files that include background investigations, career records and much more pertaining to millions of past and present federal government employees are now in the hands of still unknown cyber criminals. Imagine that. Highly sensitive, personal information about millions of people ended up we do not know where, possibly in China. And apparently the US Government was unable to prevent any of this.
Private sector problems
When it comes to the private sector there are also major black spots. Just a few days ago UNITED, one of the largest airlines in the world, had to ground all its airplanes for a few hours because of computer software errors.
On the same day the New York Stock Exchange had to halt floor trading (it continued electronically elsewhere, on other platforms) for more than 3 hours because of software malfunctions. Can you imagine that?
All systems breaking down?
Well, are these signs that the entire US IT infrastructure is breaking down? Not really. But these are signs that America is losing its edge. While we understand that federal bureaucracies are slow, there is no justification whatsoever for Washington’s chronic delays when it comes to adopting current IT technologies, while retaining old systems that are patently inadequate, not to mention highly vulnerable to cyber warfare and cyber crime.
And the private sector has some catching up to do. Most corporate networks are essentially unprotected against cyber attacks, while there are just too many unforced errors that indicate bad systems and poor programming.
Still the world IT leader?
So here is the question. Given all these well documented failures, can America still claim a world leadership position when it comes to IT?
I am not so sure anymore. But I do hope that responsible people both in government and the private sector do appreciate that it is impossible to retain great power status when your IT systems –the nerve centers of all that matters in any advanced society– are accident prone and extremely vulnerable to attacks.