RSAC 2019: An Antidote for Tech Gone Wrong

As many ponder the big ethical questions around cyber, some are proposing public interest technologist as a solution.

SAN FRANCISCO – Tech innovation can move faster than its own good might dictate, often leaving the public interest as an afterthought. Take, for example, hot-button topics such as artificial intelligence, network neutrality and social network user privacy – and consider the ensuing debates. The genie is out of bottle.

Next week, the Ford Foundation and noted technologist Bruce Schneier will promote the concept of creating the position of Public Interest Technologist to work inside government, universities, corporations and other parts of civil society. Both will host a series of sessions, here at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, to promote the idea.

What is a public interest technologist? Think public interest law, said Schneier in an interview with Threatpost.

“A public-interest attorney helps a law firm navigate ethics and societal implications of the legal world. There is no formal equivalent in technology,” Schneier said. “A public interest technologist is based on the notion that tech and policy are intertwined and that we need technologists involved in policy.”

Schneier is familiar with the turf. For a quarter-century, he has watched the so-called Crypto Wars rage  and often participated in the discussion. “There is a real, impassioned debate on both sides. Society needs a trusted technologist to discuss these issues from an informed perspective,” he said.

In the absence of an informed technologist to weigh in, he said, both sides shout past the other, and misinformed policy becomes law.

The Ford Foundation defines public-interest technologists as technology practitioners who focus on some combination of social justice, the common good, and the public interest. “We need technologists working at the intersection of technology and the public interest in every sector, industry and field,” said Michael Brennan, program officer, internet freedom, at the Ford Foundation.

Brennan and Shneier envision the role of the technologist as similar to that of a pro-bono attorney or public interest lawyer  temporary.

“Think of Latanya Sweeney going to work for a time as chief technologist at the FTC, or Ed Felton taking a job at the Obama White House as a deputy U.S. chief technology officer or Jon Callas leaving Apple to join the ACLU for two years. Now you begin to see examples of how technologists are doing tech in the public interest,” Schneier said.

This type of short-term or public service by experts in the field of technology is needed at all levels of the private and public sector.

Technology, Schneier said, stands to be the solution for many of the problems we face today. “If we have senators asking Facebook how they make money, we have a real problem,” he said.

As for the Ford Foundation, whose mission is to advance human welfare, it had a longstanding interest in promoting social welfare and public interest law in the turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s. “As the growing risks and opportunities of technologies relating to public interest started to grow, some people here said it feels like a similar moment and opportunity,” Brennan said. “We need people examining the harms and opportunities related to technology.” Today, a scant few are fighting for social justice and [against] inequalities relating to tech’s impact on the society we live in, he said.

The Ford Foundation has contributed to what might be considered the first wave of public interest technologists. It has funded TechCongress, a technology policy fellowship associated with the US Congress, that places technologist in congressional offices.

“We are seeing movement in the right direction,” Brennan said. “Back in 2015, Amnesty International had a tiny tech team to help them think through digital security. Now they have technologists around the world helping the organization build a framework how to understand digital threats, security and privacy,” he said.

The daylong track that emphasizes public interest technology here at the RSA Conference hopes to both inspire people to become involved in public interest work and match them with organizations that share the same values.

(Follow all of Threatpost’s RSA Conference 2019 coverage by visiting our special coverage section.)

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