{ datagubbe }

datagubbe.se » unconvincing conveniences, elite overproduction and sweden's single point of failure

Unconvincing Conveniences, Elite Overproduction and Sweden's Single Point of Failure.

Spring 2021

Whenever some kind of technology turns sufficiently cheap or commonplace, it usually leads to what I like to call unconvincing conveniences - things that might at first glance seem very practical indeed, but doesn't really stand up to scrutiny.

I fairly recently moved to a new apartment and it sports a fine example of an unconvincing convenience: the light switch for the kitchen lights is portable. What looks like a small container for some type of makeup or ointment is, in fact, the only way to turn on and off the kitchen lights. It's not that it's some kind of IoT thing, oh no. It's just a switch that can be carried around, and thus misplaced. It also runs on batteries, which means I regularly have to replace them. In a light switch. You know, the kind of contraption that traditionally needs no other power than a little bit of manual labor to operate. And for what? Am I going to sit in the bedroom and turn the kitchen lights on and off, giggling like a loon?

A photograph of a portable light switch resting on a kitchen counter top.

This light switch is an easy to spot unconvincing convenience. It's also one that's easy to replace (which I should, instead of just complaining about it online). Some are much harder to notice, because they actually seem to solve a problem, but their implications are much graver and they're harder to get rid off because there's so much more at stake.

Jobs for people

Sweden, the country where I live, suffers from a lot of the problems common in most western nations, especially in the EU: manufacturing jobs moving abroad combined with rapid urbanization leading to loss of vital services in smaller towns (banks, government agencies, healthcare, mail delivery, education, law enforcement). Sweden's problems are further increased mainly for two reasons: violent, organized crime has risen drastically during the same time, and Sweden's geography is different from most other EU nations. There's simply much more forest and wilderness between major cities compared to, say, the much more densely populated Germany and France. Getting to the nearest town with a police station can be a matter of driving for hours on end.

Meanwhile, politicians have touted the idea that education is the key to the future: when manufacturing jobs are relocated to Asia, the countries where these jobs previously existed will have to become some brain trust of the world, focusing on research and invention (as if this would somehow be unachievable for, say, China). Compared to for example the US, this might not seem quite as daunting. After all, education in Sweden is mostly free and although higher education is partially funded by the student, the government also provides loans which are actually not a complete joke with regards to interest and payment plans.

I'll try to refrain from delving further into the politics surrounding this, but one thing is clear: the expectation that more and more people should enter higher education means that higher education has become something quite unrelated to the kind of "hard science" usually associated with profitable, cutting edge research and invention such as chemistry, mathematics and physics. This isn't that strange, after all. People have different strengths and proclivities. I, for example, avoid maths as much as possible and whenever I try to do some handiwork, things are usually left in a worse state than before I attempted to fix them.

Hence, instead of an ever-increasing number of super innovative engineers, Swedish higher education now produces a large amount of graduates within fields such as "Nordic Urban Planning Studies", "Leadership for Sustainability", "Sustainable Cities", "Communication for Development" and other similar areas that I'm sure are very interesting indeed, but, after all, perhaps don't make up the considerable bulk of the profitable job market that the education-touting politicians were hoping for.

The core of the problem here is of course that higher education, though it's in fact been proletarianized, is still viewed as something that should grant the graduate a high status job with a high status paycheck - even though a functioning market economy will provide neither. This can be described as an overproduction of an elite, or, simply, a bunch of people with useless or superfluous skillsets who now demand the money and respect they were promised for enduring a number of years reading thick books while sustaining mostly on Ramen noodles and very cheap beer.

Jobs for elites

So, then we have a new problem that needs solving: what to do with all those graduates? In Sweden, we're historically used to paying lots of taxes and having a very big public sector. Being unashamedly Swedish, I mostly think this is a good thing, because we can then, at least theoretically, get top quality universal healthcare, great public schools, essential infrastructure running like clockwork and adequately equipped armed forces, firefighters and police. Whether or not we're actually getting all of this is of course up for constant debate, and I won't bore you with that debate.

The point is that within this massive public sector, a niche can easily be carved out for the overproduced elite: a place where sustainable leadership experts can communicate for development, thus keeping them happy and staving off some kind of upper middle class uprising - at least for the time being. But people can't just sit around and do nothing at all. There has to be at least a facade of work, some kind of project for all the project managers to manage, some kind of texts and briefings for all the communicators to write and some kind of reason to spend money for all of this to happen.

As it turns out, software - more specifically, web sites - is excellent for this kind of activity. Well, perhaps not the actual writing of the software itself, but everything that surrounds it: conceptualizing the draft specification for the steering committee assembled to lead the work on hiring the crack team of officials needed to properly formulate the invitation to tender, for example.

(A small disclaimer might be in order. I don't think an average person within this overproduced elite is inherently more or less stupid or evil than, say, a factory worker, nurse or farmer. It's basically just people who've made a decision that's completely rational on an individual level when trying to navigate and survive in Swedish society in its present form.)

Software for people

Don't get me wrong, I think computers and software have led to a lot of actual convenience. The Swedish tax authority, for example, now automatically produces an eerily correct annual summary of my fiscal status and if I don't have any legal complaints (which I and most other Swedes never do, since it's always eerily correct), I can simply authorize it using either my phone or a web site. The whole procedure is surprisingly quick and painless.

The list goes on: I can do a lot of my banking online, read my medical journals and even contact medical professionals. Some of these are actual conveniences, but combined together, they all make for a very unconvincing one.

Software against people

The overproduced elite are, unsurprisingly, not all experts on modern IT infrastructure, programming, usability and online security. This would constitute no major problem if it wasn't for how Swedish invitation to tender works. It's amicably focused on being frugal with taxpayer money, but as with a lot of good intentions, the end results are quite varying. A lot of the software and infrastructure ordered by public officials is, put bluntly, dumpster fires consisting mostly of decomposing ferret corpses and rotting cabbage.

One example is the 2019 leak of 2.7 million recorded healthcare phone calls (The real question here is of course not "Why are they so bad at buying IT?" but rather "Why were those calls recorded in the first place?"). Another example is the recent debacle surrounding Skolplattformen, a parent/teacher contact platform commissioned by the city of Stockholm. It's widely considered so bad that a bunch of parents finally got together and wrote their own version using the platform's public API. The city officials, in a tremendous display of incompetence, responded by filing a police complaint about this constituting an illegal data breach.

One could laugh at the sheer stupidity if it wasn't for the fact that this complete fiasco has also been an excessively expensive one. The cost for developing the platform is around 675 million SEK (roughly 66.8 million Euro or 81.2 million USD), with an additional annual cost for license fees, hardware, maintenance and so on totalling somewhere north of 100 million SEK.

People against software

Needless to say, these two examples are far from the only ones. Of course, a public sector project costing as much as Skolplattformen is a great place to employ the graduates of various proletarianized educations, but could those persons perhaps have been of better use somewhere else? The supposed purpose of Skolplattformen is to make communication between teachers, parents and students more efficient, with the perceived benefit of schools having to employ less administrative staff. Perhaps it would've been a wiser choice to never hire the expensive, overproduced elite in the first place and not commissioning the software at all. The money saved from this could perhaps be used to increase teachers' wages or - dare I suggest it - employing more administrative staff. After all, public schools in Sweden have worked perfectly fine without smartphone apps since their conception in 1842. "Public school administrator" might not sound as fancy as "Communicator for development", but on the other hand the former has a distinct ring of actual societal benefit.

People logging in to software

There are a lot of systems like these in Sweden. Many of them are for the public sector, such as healthcare and education. Some of them are for the private sector, such as banking. Because of fundamental services disappearing from most of the country and moving into the major cities, where they're slowly fading from usefulness due to being understaffed and keeping bizarre opening hours, it's increasingly important to be able to access their online replacements.

I've spent most of my life in one of Sweden's biggest cities and even there, living without using these platforms is increasingly difficult. It's not yet completely impossible, but we're slowly getting there.

This has a lot of further effects, one of them being that pretty much all adults in Sweden must be able to log in to more systems than they probably care to remember. The solution is, in part, one of the most over-used, publicly available tokens of identification there is in Swedish society, namely the social security number (SSN). The SSN isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it was conceived in a very different time, specifically one when computers were called ENIAC.

The SSN isn't a safe or even moderately private token. Because of Swedish public records laws, anyone's SSN can be easily obtained by anyone (along with their passport photo, current place of residence and other personal information). Apart from being used for anything from registering ownership of a car and filing your taxes, it's also used for things like online shopping and customer loyalty cards at the local supermarket. The SSN itself is also constructed to carry information about the person it's tied to, including gender and date and place of birth. This means Swedish SSN:s are widely used by criminals when committing various kinds of fraud.

Single point of failure

Thus, some kind of secure login mechanism is of course required and there's basically just a single one available, called BankID. It comes in a few different flavours, initially even as a native Linux program, which was phased out as soon as the phone app started gaining traction. Almost every Swedish adult has the BankID app and while the app itself may be as secure as such software can possibly be, it constitutes a massive single point of failure and a gloriously tempting attack vector for all kinds of shady individuals.

If someone can somehow hijack a person's BankID, they can quickly rob them of all their monetary assets, change their home address, read their medical journals, spy on their kids (through apps such as Skolplattformen), order anything off the web in their name - and more. The possibility of completely and utterly having your life ruined by the failure or breach of a single app in your smartphone is very real and all Swedes are likely victims.

BankID also means platform lock-in: It's of course only available for Windows and MacOS, or through Apple's and Google's app stores. In other words, you have to agree with the EULA of some American company in order to log in to Swedish governmental services. I'm not entirely sure this is beneficial for anyone except said American companies.

Sweden isn't the only country with a situation like this. Denmark, for example, has the similar NemID ("Easy ID"), which, like the Swedish solution, assumes that anyone from a Copenhagen city slicker to an aging farmer in the south Funen archipelago has the same understanding of and access to computers in their daily life. No matter - I'm sure both of them are keenly aware of malicious web site links and that they'll never be afflicted by ransomware and keyloggers.

People for people

As a software developer wanting to keep my job, I probably shouldn't say this - but spending less money on worthless or dangerous software will let us spend more money on hiring actual persons doing actual work. I'm sure we can find an excellent balance here if we just take a step back, breathe deeply and try to discern between change and improvement. We can start by listening less to American tech giants and politicians hellbent on creating the university graduates who are pushing us into their arms.