02 May 2005

One more problem with computers

The Pentagon released its report on the shooting incident involving Giuliana Sgrena, in which Nicola Calipari died. Of course, they completely exonerated the US soldiers. The Italian government isn't so sure - and the Italians I know here in Cambodia are pretty convinced that Sgrena's car was attacked on purpose.

Aside from the tragic aspects of this, what interested me professionally was that the US redaction of their report was done so incompetently. Kevin Drum says that "...anyone with a copy of Acrobat Reader..." can undo the redaction and read the full, unexpurgated report.

I make my living by advising others on how to use computers in their organizations. One thing I have pushed for many years is an organizational preference for simple open standards, rather than complex proprietary ones. Had this report gone out as a simple ASCII file, this mistake could not have happened; in a simple text file, either the text is there, or it isn't. And that format is searchable by any text processor.

In general, the more "features" that get included in file formats - undo levels, user names, change tracking, etc - the more likely it is that secrets will get revealed because users no longer know what information is being included in their files.

Besides, using open standards allows all users, whether on PCs, Macs, Linux, or whatever, to co-exist peacefully. And in a place like Cambodia, where no one can afford to buy proprietary software, non-open standards will, if Microsoft has its Palladium way with us, mean that this population, and many others, will be excluded from the digital world.