The other day, a medical office needed my insurance card. I asked them where to e-mail it and they acted like I had offered them human flesh as an appetizer. “We don’t have e-mail! You have to bring it to us in person!” They finally admitted that they could take a fax and I then had to go figure out how to get a free one page fax sent over the Internet. Keep in mind, that I live in the fourth largest city in the United States — firmly in the top 100 largest cities in the world. I’m not out in the wilderness dealing with a country doctor.
I understand HIPPA and other legal and regulatory concerns probably inhibit them from taking e-mail, but other doctors and health care providers have apparently figured it out. But it turns out that the more regulations are involved in something, the more behind-the-times it is likely to be.
Case in Point
I was recently reading that in Japan, government mandates means that people have to submit official documents on paper or using floppy disks or CDROMs. But nothing else. You can’t just upload your papers on the Internet. They are trying to change that, but in this day when most computers don’t have floppy drives and many no longer have optical drives, it seems strange you would insist on those formats.
But it isn’t just Japan. The article points out that South Korea just stopped using ActiveX controls on official websites. In China, if you hold on to a company’s “chops” — think of a rubber stamp that is an official signature — you can control the company even if you’ve been fired.
But, surely, not in the U.S., right? You might be surprised. Do you wonder why the IRS is behind on tax form processing? Sure, COVID-19 is the official reason. But the Washington Post recently did a look at how the agency handles tax forms. Stacks and stacks of paper are everywhere — even in the cafeteria. There’s no optical character recognition. A human being enters in all the data by hand. No kidding.
Why, Oh Why?
So why are we in this state of affairs? Governments move slowly, of course. I’m sure no one want to pay for the IRS or the Japanese government to upgrade their systems. Yet, you can imagine the cost savings if you had more electronic documents and OCR instead of outdated manual systems with antiquated equipment.
You might argue that people don’t know what’s possible, but I doubt that’s true today. We live in a world where even ordinary people use their smartphones to deposit checks and scan documents. You can’t tell me that no one in these organizations has even moderate computer literacy.
Then there’s fear coupled with misunderstanding. I used to have major companies call me to place orders for things and when you told them they could order with a credit card they would act about as shocked as the medical office staff. They were not going to put their super special credit card on the bad old Internet, no way! So they would read the number to a stranger on an insecure phone line and then what would I do? Type it into the order system on the Internet.
I joined a company a few years ago that was just about to roll out an electronic signature system. They were very proud of it and had a meeting to explain how wonderful it was. I couldn’t see how people were being authenticated, though, so I asked an inconvenient question. The premise was that if Alice got an e-mail for her signature, there would be a link in it and clicking it would sign the document. I asked what happens if I get into Alice’s e-mail. They assured me that wasn’t a problem.
I wasn’t satisfied. I said, “How does that work?” They couldn’t explain it to me. So I said, “So can you send an e-mail to sign something to the CIO? I want her to forward it to me and if I can’t sign it then I’ll go figure out why and I’ll leave you alone. ” Ten minutes later, I had signed the CIO’s name to something and the system was back at the drawing board.
It Can Be Better
But the point is this: people think that electronic documents are somehow insecure or bad. But they don’t have to be. There are many ways that you can authenticate people — digital certificates, a PIN code, and probably 143 more ways that I can’t think of. But just proving you have a link in an e-mail isn’t sufficient. That’s why banks often ask you questions about things they can find out about you like which car did you own or which address have you had in the past. Sure, someone highly motivated can figure that out, but it stops all but the most dedicated adversary.
I think our community might be a step ahead of most people in this area. We tend to trust digital documents. The days of giant catalogs and databook arriving in the mail are over, for better or worse. You are reading this on some sort of screen and not in a glossy four-color magazine. Most of us know how to send encrypted e-mails.
But we are the minority by a long shot. Try exchanging an encrypted e-mail with practically anyone. Find three non-technical people at your work who have a digital certificate. Try authorizing someone to get into a safety deposit box or close a real estate deal with no physical papers. Today, you probably can’t do any of those things.
I have a feeling some countries are better at this than others. How’s where you live?