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Thursday, 19 July 2012 23:00

Electoral data goes missing, so does common sense


Just because YOU think something is impossible, it doesn't mean others will agree. A recent data loss at Elections Ontario is a shining example.

Many have pointed to the Dunning Kruger effect as a reason for over-confidence in people who are not sufficiently skilled to understand their limitations.

In fact Dunning and Kruger were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for their report "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." Probably a case of the D-K effect on the part of the committee!

I wrote recently of a situation in New Zealand where a PR person merrily described a problem as, "it's very technical" when trying to explain why a specific course of action hadn't been followed.

Suffice to say he was pilloried rather strongly for this ejaculation.

And now we have the same thing repeated, only ten times worse.

In the Canadian Province of Ontario, the local Electoral Commission has a tiny little problem - they lost two USB memory sticks containing the details of around 2 million voters. Worse, according to Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian the data wasn't even encrypted.

Despite the mandate that all USB keys must be password protected and encrypted if they carry personal information, clearly in this instance they were not.

Despite the breach occurring in April, the public were only advised yesterday.

However, according to provincial Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essanda, everything is going to be fine because, "the data on the drives wasn't encrypted, but was in a format that could only be accessed by proprietary provincial software or by a highly skilled programmer using commercial software."

Essanda continued, "If you were to put these keys into your computer now there's no [file] extension that comes on the files. You would not be able to identify exactly what software you would need to utilize them."

Well gosh, I'm glad to know that since you can't read the data, no-one else can either.  This isn't stupidity, it's not malice of any kind, it's simply a case of Dunning Kruger in reverse. Instead of over-estimating his skills, Essanda is assuming that everyione else is as clueless about computers as he is.  Probably not a particularly safe assumption in this modern age.  Heck, even a savvy 10-year-old would figure our the storage format.

Reading the press release, it would seem most likely that a "wandering minstrel" has seen the memory stick and re-appropriated it for their own use; the personal data is long deleted. But that's just my opinion (and a rare dose of common sense in this sorry event).

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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.

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