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A Referendum on Openness

February 21st, 2020 by dk

The rapid spread of the coronavirus has quickly morphed from a public health story to a public policy debate. As the disease nears pandemic proportions, it has become the touchstone for a worldwide referendum on openness versus control.

As if to underscore its place on this spectrum, China this week revoked visas for three journalists for The Wall Street Journal, in retaliation for a column written weeks ago by Walter Russell Mead. In his Feb. 4 column, Mead pointed out that China’s coming economic dominance is far more fragile than its leaders are willing to admit.

Before we get too smug on the matter of political openness, remember that the head of the Democratic party in Iowa assured a reporter that Iowa has “never been better prepared” for its quadrennial caucus. He also refused to divulge in advance who had written the new app they intended to use or how it had been tested.

Thanks to an army of reporters who suddenly couldn’t file stories about who had won the caucuses, it quickly became known that the app was written by Democratic operatives under the company name of “Shadow.” And that Iowa party leaders had refused to allow the app to be stress tested in advance, for fear of the system getting hacked.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price resigned after the caucus debacle, which demonstrates the importance of openness, even if it came too late for Price and for Iowa. China has handled their crisis very differently.

In December, eight doctors reported to Chinese officials that patients in Wuhan were getting sick with an untreatable virus. It resembled SARS, but known remedies weren’t working. Chinese leaders thought their reports made the government look bad, so these doctors were punished. One of them, Dr. Li Wenliang, has since died from the coronavirus.

In between the coronavirus story and the Iowa caucuses came another news event that turned on this same axis. After years of forensic studies, it was determined that the sprawling identity theft from Equifax in 2017 came from hackers sent by the Chinese government.

The Equifax data breach exposed the identities of 145 million Americans. It was all caused by Equifax’s failure to install a software patch. The open-source software association Apache announced the software patch in March of 2017. The hacking began in May.

So the contours of this international debate began almost three years ago. Apache was open about the vulnerabilities of its software and issued a free software upgrade that fixed the problem. Equifax was less forthcoming about its diligence to protect its customers’ accounts.

China took advantage of Equifax’s opaque corporate culture. When no announcement had been made of the upgrade, China’s hackers began probing. They exploited the vulnerability and then covered their tracks, using Equifax’s opacity to its advantage twice.

The lesson for China, Equifax, and Iowa’s Democratic leaders is the same. The sooner a wide range of people know about any vulnerability, the better defended everyone can be. Unfortunately for Wenliang, his willingness to warn others cost him his reputation. And then it cost him his life.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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