Response to lost IRS email shows the public’s growing (but still inadequate) grasp of digital information

This week marks a milestone on the path toward a tech-literate society. A collective belly laugh rings out across the land in response to the assertion that two years’ worth of email was lost when former IRS official Lois Lerner’s computer crashed. Or is it a snort of disgust we hear?

Either way, the IRS is getting the same reception as the Nigerian prince who needs you to hide his gold for him. The public seems to be in accord with the IT community, telling Washington, “Come on, we’re smarter than that!”

Mainstream understanding of digital information has exploded since 2009, the year I prematurely declared that Joe Lunchbox had evolved into Joe Laptop, and I unsuccessfully launched a radio talk show covering cybercrime and digital privacy.  My little show had been downloaded about 10,000 times each month as a podcast (thecyberjungle.com). On the radio, it bombed.

We’ve come a long way since then. We’ve had our secrets exposed on Facebook, our reading material monitored by Google, our credit cards hijacked at Target, and our national spy-on-citizens program revealed by Edward Snowden.

Just as we start smelling the coffee, the stink of government incompetence blows  our way. A series of blunders (scandals if you prefer), featuring data mismanagement (malfeasance if you prefer), has been compounded by insultingly stupid excuse-making. The government’s only hope has been that its citizens would be sufficiently lacking in technical sophistication to buy the explanations. That’s no longer a safe bet.

Five years ago, the lost IRS email story might carried the day, with nobody but nerds and a handful of tin-foil hat types registering disbelief. But this story, and the health care exchange website debacle, are a snapshot of an improving public grasp on digital reality. It’s a digital portrait of We the People, right now, and it shows our faces half lit, half in darkness.

We know what happens to email after we click the send button. We know that it’s relayed multiple times, and lives in multiple locations. We know our employers store it for legal reasons, and we know that we can never truly delete it.

And yet, when was the last time you received an email containing “unofficial” instructions that really shouldn’t be in writing? Or a snarky remark about a client (with whom you could end up in litigation), or gossip about the boss (who can monitor whatever you write)? Got one this morning, you say?

When it comes to email, we are B-plus students. We’re in closer contact with its complexities than we are, for instance, with the databases that drive e-commerce, where we’re still pulling a C-minus.

We still struggle to understand the jeopardy in online transactions. We log into bank accounts from our phones, but “only to check the balance,” as if it’s the act of transferring money that exposes us to cybercrime, rather than the act of entering passwords. In droves, we e-file our tax returns, using services providers approved by the very same IRS that can’t find its email backups.

We believed a government website would be a plausible place to buy health insurance, and we bought the b.s. when massive system failures were characterized as a “glitches.” Rarely has a word been misused so many times, by so many people, and gone essentially unchallenged.

Now we’ve apparently accepted the iffy proposition that the “glitchy” exchanges can be fixed, and maybe this is why the folks in charge thought we’d buy that moronic song-and-dance about Lois Lerner’s emails being vaporized when her computer hard drive crashed. The two narratives are equally preposterous, but not equal tests of our technical sophistication.

We the People get a D in common sense when we allow our government agencies to build data-eating beasts that suck down money and leak private information, ultimately failing to perform as specified. We’ve been far too tolerant when the beast builders shrug off suggestions that the owners of the data – We the People – may have suffered harm because of it.

Our skeptical response to the IRS email story may be a turning point, and not just because we understand how email works. But because we realize, too, that although the United States government can’t find Lois Lerner’s email, it can find ours, any time it wants to.

 UPDATE: The original post said The Cyberjungle got 10,000 downloads per week as a podcast.  If only! It’s been edited to reflect the correct number, 10,000 per month.