The Governor of Missouri wants to prosecute a journalist for embarrassing his state.
As Governor Parson described in a press conference in October, “Through a multi-step process, an individual took the records of at least three educators, decoded the HTML source code, and viewed the social security number of those specific educators. … This individual is not a victim. They were acting against a state agency to compromise teachers’ personal information in an attempt to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet. We will not let this crime against Missouri teachers go unpunished. And we refuse to let them be a pawn in the news outlet’s political vendetta.”
What Governor Parson neglects to mention is that the man, a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, simply noticed that the Missouri Department of Education website had accidentally exposed the social security numbers of 100,000 teachers to the public. He also professionally alerted the department to the flaw, and waited until it had been fixed before publishing his story. And as for the multi-step process, you can try it for yourself right now:
- Look in the upper right corner of your screen. See the symbol that looks like three dots stacked on top of each other? Click it.
- Scroll down and hover over “More tools.”
- Click “Developer Tools.”
- Congratulations, according to the Governor of Missouri, you’ve just hacked The City Voice.
To be clear, this is how all websites work. In fact, try it on the CIA website some time. The code you see with the developer tools is called CSS and it’s a kind of visual style modifier: a language primarily used to edit basic graphics like colors, fonts, and text-sizes. It absolutely should not contain any kind of data, let alone social security numbers. I can say, as a programmer, that if I made a mistake like that I would want somebody to tell me immediately.
Languages like CSS and HTML, which is also visible in the Developer Tools window, are the programmer’s equivalent of the pencil sketch an artist might make on a canvas before starting a painting. Even if you only see the colors once the painting is finished, the lines are still there, which is exactly why they should never contain anything that you wouldn’t want to be visible to all.
So if a journalist walked up to you and said “Hey, just a heads up, it looks like you accidentally wrote the social security numbers of 100,000 innocent people in the corner there and forgot to paint over it, might want to fix that,” would you say “Thank you” or call them “pathetic” and have them criminally investigated by the state highway patrol. The fact that the Governor of Missouri chose the second is so absurd that I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
This may well go down in history as our generation’s “It’s a series of tubes” moment, but more importantly it demonstrates the urgency of creating real digital literacy education in this country. I believe that every high school in America should require a class on programming, not just Multimedia or Business Technology. I have nothing against those classes, but they simply have too much to cover to devote the semester or even year needed to really dive into true programming languages.
By the time they graduate, every high school senior should be able to follow a conversation about CSS, HTML, or maybe even a little Python without getting lost. Not because we’re all going to become programmers, far from it, but because in every other field we accept the necessity of studying the basics enough to get by.
I doubt there are many 10th grade English students who particularly want to read Beowulf, but nevertheless it’s school mandated, like every other text we cover in six years of English classes, because of its place in the literary canon. We just accept that, to participate in modern society, we all have to understand the occasional Shakespeare allusion.
That may well be true, I’m not arguing against it, but think about how many times in your life you expect to encounter a Shakespeare reference compared to the number of times you plan to look at a website or use a computer. Even if you combined the cultural prevalence of every book you’ve ever read for English class, there would be no comparison. So if studying Shakespeare is a necessity, why isn’t Introductory Programming at the top of the course list?
I’ll leave you with this. Maybe if the employees of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had grown up with access to good digital literacy classes, they wouldn’t have accidentally leaked 100,000 social security numbers to the world. And maybe, in a world where every ninth grader had their Introductory Python class on the first day of school, the Governor of Missouri wouldn’t be trying to prosecute a journalist for doing his job.
While it might take some time to convince the US education system, Khan Academy offers an excellent free course on CSS, HTML, and web page design for anyone interested in learning more. Check it out at https://www.khanacademy.org/computing/computer-programming/html-css.