Asbestos is also useful

AsbestFor decades throughout the Western world houses were built with asbestos. The material is affordable, durable, insulating and also has excellent fire resistant properties. All this – and the low price – made it the ideal stuff to use for everything. Which is what we did.

As long as the asbestos remains safely in place, nothing much happens. It does its job and you don’t need to think about it. The problems begin when changes are made, such as a conversion. The demolition of a such a wall releases microscopic asbestos fibres, resulting in enormous danger to the health of anyone who has the misfortune to be nearby. Consequently the processing of asbestos is very strictly regulated. Despite these regulations, asbestos has for decades caused twice as many deaths as road accidents.

Because the long-term consequences of the use of asbestos is so damaging, its use is now prohibited. All this, despite the fact that the original reasons for using still exist: asbestos is still cheap, strong, durable, insulating and fire resistant. Yet we now don’t use it because the social price is just too high. Strategic and social reasons are more important than practical and technical advantages.

Yet when we talk about the software that governments use for their daily work, it seems virtually impossible to distinguish between strategic and operational arguments. Concerns about the fundamental inadequacy of closed (and uncontrollable) systems are easily dismissed by phrases such as "it’s useful", and "everyone’s used to it”, or even “political concerns are not up for discussion”. All these quotes were also used by asbestos suppliers in the 1980s.

Fortunately, the traditionally cuddly but now dangerously naive Dutch approach to international relations was brutally interrupted last month: the Dutch government has been lying to itself and us about military deployment; people’s cloud-computing data is indeed vulnerable; Israel and the USA use their technical knowledge of proprietary systems to attack their digital adversaries; and 10% of Dutch PCs have been taken over by criminals. The latter is a direct consequence of the desktop-monopoly actively created by the government, and to this day strengthened through its IT-education policy.

Today it’s an Iranian nuclear installation, the personal data of Rop Gongrijp, and the domain of Wikileaks. Tomorrow perhaps it will be a Dutch (air)port, power station, hospital or a few ministries?

If the Netherlands wishes to retain control of its own sovereignty, we have to stop this quasi-naivety in conversations about technology strategy. Despite all international agreements, the law of the jungle still prevails, but we behave like we’re taking a stroll in the park. NOiV (or its successor programme) must find the courage to start a conversation about the strategic implications of running our public administration on systems that are not under our control. It is time to strictly regulate our public sector asbestos-information.  Although it can be useful, we must seek out alternatives that ware safe for everybody.