The Technology 202: D.C.’s vaccination portal failed three days in a row. It’s part of a bigger problem.

Others were asked to log in to a nonexistent account, my colleagues reported. And some said they repeatedly were told that the captcha codes they typed in were incorrect, even when they were the same as the digits displayed on the website. 

Lindsey Parker, chief technology officer for the D.C. government, said in a video on Twitter that the city’s portal was unable to handle a surge of more than 36,000 people visiting the portal in a single day trying to obtain one of about 4,300 vaccination slots. She said in a joint statement with Microsoft vice president Paul Mirts that the city and company are working together to improve server capacity and coordinate more closely before expected surges in traffic when new appointments become available. 

“We are committed to addressing technical issues so that the vaccination appointment portal is properly functional and accessible,” they wrote. 

The problems in the District highlight a broader problem throughout the United States. 

The problems may only escalate as more people become eligible for vaccinations and government websites see even greater numbers of people trying to visit a website at the same time to secure appointments. 

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said the Microsoft rollout presented “real challenges” for the state. A senior administration official told NBC News that the website was not properly configured, and was crashing as recently as February. NBC reported there were also instances where people were able to sign up for vaccinations, only to find that the sites were inactive or closed. 

And in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) announced the state would call off a partnership with Microsoft because it was too challenging to integrate the company’s technology with the many different county-by-county systems in a timely manner. 

There’s a long history of government under-investing in tech, especially at the local level. 

Vaccination appointments are just the latest in a series of tech failures that have highlighted the limitations of government digital resources. Earlier in the pandemic, websites across the country administering unemployment benefits repeatedly crashed under a surge of demand. 

Tech experts told me earlier this year that the tech issues reflect a lack of coordination and support from the federal government, as cash-strapped local officials take on an unprecedented push to swiftly administer vaccines. 

“State and local health agencies are doing a Herculean task right now, where they’re coordinating the fastest vaccine rollout in modern history in the U.S., and they’re doing it without leadership from the federal government,” Raphael Lee, who directs the health program at U.S. Digital Response, which coordinates tech volunteers to help governments respond to crises, told me in January. 

The problems also reflect the shortcomings of high-profile efforts for governments and tech companies to work together to respond to the crisis. Other efforts, such as the Apple and Google partnership to use smartphones to notify people if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, have yet to gain widespread adoption. And California just ended its high-profile testing partnership with Verily, Google’s sister company that was widely touted at the beginning of the pandemic. 

There are some steps experts recommend people take when they hit a crashing website. 

My colleague Geoffrey Fowler put together a very helpful guide to help everyone ensure they can secure vaccine appointments

For people continuing to hit error messages, Parker, the D.C. technologist, put together a video of tips. Though these tips are directed at people in the District, they could be useful in other cities using Microsoft’s tools and include generally good advice for dealing with crashing websites. Parker says:

  1. Use Chrome or Firefox as your browser. (Safari works on a Mac, too.)
  2. Refresh the browser if an issue arises. 
  3. Try a different browser if it’s still not working. 
  4. Clear the browser cache. 

Some experts warn that tech alone is not to blame for the rocky vaccine rollout, especially at a time when the demand for vaccinations far outstrips the supply. 

“The simple truth is that D.C. needs more vaccine,” Parker said. “We’re going to continue to advocate for more, and we have more work to do to make this appointment process work smoothly.” 

Our top tabs

President Biden supports Alabama Amazon workers’ union drive. 

The president tweeted a video last night that said workers should be able to decide whether to organize in the election without pressure from the company, my colleagues Jay Greene and Eli Rosenberg report. It’s the most high-profile display of support yet for the 5,800 workers in the middle of middle of a seven-week voting drive to determine whether they want the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to represent them.

Biden did not directly name Amazon in the video, but he did mention the workers in Alabama in the tweet. He also called employers to not take steps to intervene in the process. 

“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” Biden said.

The Biden campaign had promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company has been actively discouraging its employees from unionizing. The company has previously said it doesn’t believe “the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views.” (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

ICE used a private utility database to go after immigration violations.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement used a Thomson Reuters database of more than 400 million names, addresses and service records from 80 utility companies, including Internet providers, Drew Harwell reports. ICE’s use of the database, whose data comes from Equifax, highlights how government agencies are using commercial databases to access data they can’t compile themselves.

“We are concerned that Thomson Reuters’ commercialization of personal and use data of utility customers and sale of broad access to ICE is an abuse of privacy, and that ICE’s use of this database is an abuse of power,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), the vice chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the chairman of a subcommittee on economic and consumer policy, wrote in a letter to Thomson Reuters and Equifax.

Thomson Reuters directed requests for comment to ICE, which declined to comment on its “investigative techniques, tactics or tools,” citing “law-enforcement sensitivities.” Equifax did not respond to requests for comment.

Tech companies are approaching remote relocation in vastly differently ways.

Some, like Spotify, have relaxed their rules for relocating while others, like Lyft, have required that their workers move to approved states, the Wall Street Journal’s Chip Cutter and Emily Glazer report. Tech companies are dealing with the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, which could leave remote work, and the associated tax challenges, here to stay. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told workers last year that the company planned to use its virtual private network to track employees’ locations for tax purposes. The company ultimately decided against tracking employees that way, but worker relocations must be approved by the company and Facebook said that salaries may change as a result.

The Biden administration has begun discussing tech cooperation with allies.

Preliminary conversations about how to work together on different tech issues have begun, the Wall Street Journal’s Bob Davis reports. It’s part of a push to stay ahead of China in the tech industry as the Biden administration works to fuel the U.S. semiconductor industry.

The United States could form alliances to address issues such as artificial intelligence, export controls and surveillance technology. But the details of which countries are included in the talks could be kept quiet because of allies’ fears of offending Beijing.

A U.S.-led semiconductor alliance “violates the principles of market economy and fair competition, and will only artificially separate the world and destroy international trade rules,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Inside the industry

A Huawei executive will argue that former president Donald Trump “poisoned” her extradition hearings.

Lawyers for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou are expected to argue today that former president Donald Trump “poisoned” the hearings so much that they can “no longer be reasonably regarded as fair,” Amanda Coletta reports. Canada arrested Meng in 2018 at the behest of the U.S. government, which said she was being accused of committing wire fraud and bank fraud. 

Canada’s attorney general, who represents U.S. interests in the case, dismissed Meng’s arguments as “moot,” writing in legal filings that “the facts on which it is based — statements by a President no longer in office, about a possible intervention in a case that never occurred, purportedly to achieve a trade deal that has long since been successfully negotiated — have no past, present or prospective impact on these proceedings.” Hearings before a Canadian judge are expected to stretch into May.

Trending

Daybook

  • Former acting assistant attorney general for national security Mary McCord speaks at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event on fighting right-wing extremism online on March 2 at 10 a.m.
  • The Senate Banking Committee holds a hearing on President Biden’s nominees to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Gary Gensler and Rohit Chopra, on March 2 at 10 a.m.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts an event on quantum computing on March 3 at 1 p.m.
  • The Brookings Institution hosts an event on the government’s role in reducing bias in algorithms on March 12 at 9 a.m.

Rant and rave

Here’s how it’s going a year into the pandemic:

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