The National Assembly’s programming committee became a porn site for a few brief moments during lockdown – to almost everybody’s shock and surprise. I wasn’t a witness, but those who were, say that it was by no measure soft porn on display. Accompanied by slurs of a sexual and racist kind, it was appalling, unacceptable and criminal.
But why was it such a surprise? To call this a hack is an insult to anyone who knows how to switch on a computer. Parliament left the door wide open. It invited everyone and anyone to join the meeting as active participants in the forum by publishing the link on Twitter and then expected nothing bad to happen. It is, frankly, a mind-blowing display of ignorance.
It is vital during lockdown that Parliament finds some way to firstly hold the executive to account and secondly to give access to this information in real time to the media and the public. These are basic principles of a constitutional democracy without which we cannot function as a country. For the time being (and I hope in some ways in the future as well) virtual meetings are now an essential part of the day to day life of our Parliament.
One would think then that in setting this up, every possible precaution would be taken to make sure that it is as secure as possible. Surely, when you give the instruction that the link to the meeting should be made public, you consider for a brief moment the consequences of inviting your 648,000 Twitter followers to almost literally take their seat around the table instead of in the public gallery.
During the six years that I have been a member of Parliament, I have not seen a single campaign – either by Parliament itself or on the initiative of the government – to educate parliamentarians, staff members and other government employees on how to go about with official information on their devices. Everyone simply gets issued a laptop, tablet, smartphone, internal email address and sent off into the world to latch on to every WiFi network they can find. The only exception to this is the notice boards that don’t get noticed in the first place, flashing two or three slides of information every few minutes during cybersecurity week once a year. This fact too, would come as a big surprise to many who work there.
In the meantime, sensitive information is exchanged all the time, easy passwords are left unchanged or unprotected and bored committee-goers occasionally end up opening everything in their spam and junk mail, sending some of it along to ask if it might be a hoax. It’s gullible, but it happens.
No one ever gives anyone in the employment of the State – executive, judiciary or legislative and staff members – any information on how to protect the electronic information they deal with on a daily basis.
So how is this relevant to hackers gaining access to a Zoom committee meeting? If those in control of the running of Parliament were a bit more technologically savvy, they would have started firstly by not publishing the link to the meeting for everyone to see. They would have invited the public and the media to attend the meeting live via YouTube or the parliamentary channel. It’s open to everyone around the world for free. Guests are in any event not allowed to actively take part in meetings, but they should have access to the information and exchanges. Democracy served.
Then, it would also help to assist MP’s and staff members with keeping the links as secure as possible by informing them how to be responsible with their emails. This is not what caused Thursday’s glitch, but you pre-empt and prevent future issues in this way.
There will always be a possibility that our meetings will be disrupted. Much like there will always be a possibility that things can go wrong in a public gallery, or on the floor among members as well. Perhaps not as graphic as on Thursday, but violent and damaging nevertheless. It is no reason to shy away from technology. All electronic platforms are hackable in some or other way. A responsible user will try to make those ways more difficult and fewer.
Parliament and the government should learn to become more responsible with technology. Even more importantly: we need to learn to embrace the benefits thereof, which far outweigh the cons, in a responsible manner. Technology allows for cheaper and by no means less effective meetings, a paperless environment, no more splashing of public funds on food and venues, better record-keeping and ultimately wider access to the public. It should be embraced and after the lockdown incorporated in a responsible and well thought through manner into the day-to-day functioning of what is supposed to be a modern institution.
If that is to happen – and considering the era we live in, it will – then there is no better time than now for this government to drive awareness on the dangers and risks involved in the technology we so freely use. A good place to start would be with itself. DM
George Michalakis is a DA Member of Parliament responsible for the Security and Justice cluster in the National Council of Provinces.