You’ve lost your job and now you face an obsolete, sluggish unemployment system that feels like it was written in the 1950s. Actually, it’s more than a feeling. If you’re in New Jersey, New York or Connecticut, your unemployment system was written in 60-year-old Cobol. Meanwhile, if you want to apply for unemployment benefits online in Washington, D.C., the system insists you use Internet Explorer. As I recall, IE was put out to pasture five years ago.
With the United States leading the world both in total number of COVID-19 diagnoses and total number of deaths related to the virus, a lot of people have been asking how the richest country in the world could do so poorly in dealing with a pandemic. We might also be asking how the most technologically advanced country in the world can be so technologically backwards in some ways.
Part of the answer might be that the United States began implementing technology so early in the digital revolution. A lot of what was written then, including that old Cobol code, was just never updated.
But even as we’re discovering just how much we’re relying on obsolete, semi-broken software, we’re also finding that newer programs are also troubled. The Zoom videoconferencing service has gone from enjoying wild popularity to being endlessly criticized for security and privacy problems. It even has a new kind of security problem — zoom-bombing — named after it.
These problems have all come to light in the unrelenting glare of the coronavirus pandemic.
The first problem is that old technology, like those government websites backed by decades old code, simply isn’t up to the job.
The problem with the clogged unemployment sites isn’t that the code itself is bad. It’s not. It’s that it was never meant to deal with loads hundreds of times over its design specifications. What is?
On the other hand, the D.C. unemployment system was badly designed in the first place — tying any application to a specific browser is never a smart move. And that bad design choice was never corrected; the code was never updated, so that it’s still dependent on a browser that’s no longer supported and virtually no one uses anymore. Unemployed workers in Washington who discover that they can’t file from home unless they use IE will be forced out to the streets and into government offices, because there’s no way they can download IE these days.
In Florida, we have a totally different situation. There, the previous Republican administration deliberately designed its unemployment system to lower the state’s reported number of jobless claims rather than efficiently process them. When faced with COVID-19 levels of unemployment, it, unsurprisingly, failed to a degree so bad even Republicans tried to distance themselves from it. (“Failed” as in, “failed to give people the unemployment benefits they need.” But keeping benefits out of the hands of people who need them is actually what the system was designed to do.)
Then there are newer programs showing problems of a different nature. You can’t say that Zoom was overwhelmed as the numbers of people using it grew astronomically when businesses closed offices and stay-at-home orders were issued. It’s bearing the load of hundreds of thousands of new videoconferences. But all its defects are being discovered and examined under the harsh glare of its new star status.
Eric Yuan, Zoom’s CEO, recently said he had underestimated the threat of online harassment. “I never thought about this seriously.” Zoom was designed for businesses with IT departments, he explained, which could take care of setting up the appropriate security and password settings. The company never dreamed of dealing with a horde of new users so clueless they didn’t know that setting up meeting passwords would be a smart move.
Zoom’s main design goal was making it frictionless for users. Security and privacy were secondary concerns. In a case of mixed blessings, that ease of use led to its rise in popularity when people began looking for new ways to stay connected, but that popularity itself became a problem when so many of the new users didn’t know the first thing about security. Combine this with Zoom’s poor security and privacy design and you had a mess, which has led to investor lawsuits and governments telling their staffers not to use Zoom.
The common thread here is that the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting unemployment are stressing not just all of us locked down in our homes. It’s also stressing our technologies — old and new — as they too face circumstances no one saw coming.
Brace yourselves. There will be more trouble ahead as the consequences of our failure to update systems and to think about these things seriously continue to work themselves out.