Government Asks for Security Community’s Help on Technical Issues

LAS VEGAS–Washington is looking for a few good hackers.

Politicians and policymakers in the United States generally are not thought of as being the most technically savvy lot. It’s a reputation that’s well-earned in some cases, with some politicians boasting about their inability to use email and affinity for flip phones. But the lack of understanding of technology in Washington is not always a laughing matter. These are the people who write technology laws, after all, including the much-maligned Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the even-more-maligned proposed Wassenaar rules.

But technologists have been infiltrating some government agencies in recent years, as folks such as Ed Felten, Ashkan Soltani, Chris Soghoian, and others have held positions as CTOs or similar jobs in the federal government. Soltani, the chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission, said that the government needs the help of the security, privacy, and technology communities to inform policymakers and politicians on technical topics such as the Wassenaar export controls and other issues.

“These are critical debates and it’s important for you all to engage in them,” Soltani said during a talk at the Black Hat conference here Wednesday.

“It’s not always fun, but on the other hand, telling a bunch of high-powered attorneys and politicians that they’re wrong can be fun sometimes.”

The FTC in recent years has executed a number of enforcement actions involving privacy and security issues. Last year, the commission reached a settlement with Snapchat over some misrepresentations about how the company’s texting app handles photos and messages. The FTC said that the messages users sent did not actually disappear, as the company claimed. And the commission also reached a settlement in 2014 with Fandango and Credit Karma over issues with SSL in their mobile apps.

These are technical, complicated issues that the lawyers and policymakers who run the FTC aren’t necessarily as versed in as the security community is. Which is the reason that researchers such as Soltani and Felten, the deputy CTO at the White House, have proven to be valuable resources. Terrell McSweeny, an FTC commissioner who spoke alongside Soltani at Black Hat, said the input of the tech community is key in many cases.

“We’re trying to keep pace with where consumers are with technology,” she said.

Soltani and McSweeny both urged researchers and technologists to voice their opinions and offer their advice on technical issues.

“We’re here to ask for your help,” McSweeny. “We definitely have an open-door policy and will listen when we hear bout good research. Get involved.”

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