Thursday, February 08, 2007

Let's get our priorities straight

Published: Feb. 8, 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Trying to predict what current event will capture our collective interest is a fool's errand. I gave up years ago.

For example, I never could understand the avalanche of news coverage on, or public reaction to, the Elian Gonzalez story several years back. The circumstances, while sad, involved one child. Yet politicians and media were consumed with the ordeal for more than a year.

Now consider the recent information security blunders by state government and the relatively small amount of attention they garnered. One case involved Social Security numbers printed on the outside of tax booklets for about 171,000 Wisconsin taxpayers. Some were recovered, but most were mailed.

It made me wonder: Were we really more concerned about Brett Favre's return to the Packers than actions that could have potentially compromised the identities of thousands of taxpayers?

I hope that is not the case, but the amount of public and media interest for each topic might suggest otherwise.

That Social Security saga for me began with a letter from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue on Jan. 27. It was reminiscent of unscheduled invoices from my home builder that always arrived on a Saturday when I could reach no one at his office. The builder's strategy, I believe, was so I'd have a couple of days to cool off before he'd hear from me. Better to spoil my weekend than his, I suppose. (The strategy worked.)

Similarly, after reading the letter from the Department of Revenue and an accompanying one from the printer informing me that an error put at risk my wife's Social Security number along with thousands of others, my first reaction was not printable in a family newspaper. My second reaction was: Wow, this is a reporter's dream for a slow news day because it was the first I had heard of it (although the Journal Sentinel reported on the blunder on Dec. 30).

How many staffers will get sacked, I wondered? Who was responsible for overseeing the process before, during and after Social Security information was distributed to the printer? How can a security breach reported by the Department of Revenue to news outlets on Dec. 29, and described in its letter dated Jan. 12, not reach me until Jan. 27?

What a story, I thought. I can't wait to see the firestorm from angry citizens. I'm still waiting.

On Feb. 3, there was an article in the Journal Sentinel's Metro section with the headline "Personal information theft hits Assembly." It described another government-bungled possession of Social Security numbers.

This time, a human resources aide took a report containing Social Security numbers of state officials and tossed it in her car before going to the gym. A thief stole the report and other items from her car.

I wonder if all the privacy wonks so unhinged over Bush administration surveillance measures to track down terrorists care about this colossal carelessness with our Social Security numbers.

In his recent "state of the state" address, Gov. Jim Doyle talked about financial incentives to stem global warming, a problem that, by definition, requires action from national and international policy-makers.

We'd benefit more from Doyle's efforts to change what is in his earthly sphere of influence. We need added attention to concerns like spending reform and tax reform and a renewed sense of urgency for internal controls at state agencies handling our personal data or managing procurement with state funds.

Oh, and welcome as it is, Favre's return next year won't alleviate those concerns.