April 5, 2016

Last month, for the first time in its 30-year history, the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, played host to the president of the United States. Thousands of SXSW delegates crowded into lounges, bars and ballrooms to watch the live-streamed keynote conversation, while a lucky few hundred drawing winners attended the event in person.

In discussing matters of policy, the president did not disappoint. He ranged across the wide spectrum of government tech challenges, and for the first time commented publicly on the ongoing Apple-FBI conflict around access to the encrypted iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter.

Government and Tech

There is a clear will to make government work more effectively using tech; to tackle big problems in new ways, and to improve civic participation. The concept of tech talent working hand-in-hand with government is sometimes hard to grasp: There is a massive cultural clash between the sleek tech world and outdated government systems. The president ruefully recalled the launch of Obamacare and the immediate failure of the website built to administer it. The big and bloated procurement systems, which gave rise to this failure, were created for ‘boots and pencils’ - not software! There is an immediate need to change procurement processes so that they call for innovative solutions, rather than requesting specific but outdated widgets.

To tackle the current state of affairs there is now a cross-system ‘SWAT team’ with top Silicon Valley talent, the U.S. Digital Services. As a U.K. observer, the technical challenges faced by the government are familiar. We are also going through substantial change, with the U.K.’s Government Digital Service bringing agile development to bear in a traditionally sluggish environment.

Future-proofing tech initiatives

President Obama stressed that the new regime will need to support constant improvement, and the continued introduction of new talent and new ideas. Building engagement and public trust in government tech is a priority: A continuous pipeline of talent, thought leadership on issues, such as tackling extremism online, and improving representation, are key elements for success.

The U.S. is the only developed country that is making it harder to vote, said the president. In Texas, he reminded us, you can't even register to vote online. Government needs safe, secure and smart systems, and users must be aware of the issues upon which they are voting. In a wider context, there is now an app for everything from banking to bus tickets, from fitness to photography.  We should expect the same smooth experience on primary interaction with government, whether that’s at IRS filing time or renewing licenses. Right now this is patently not the case, and the government needs the help of the tech community as a whole to move forward effectively.

The digital ideal

One immediate concern when moving services online is to ensure that all citizens are empowered to use them. A shocking 50 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of African-Americans do not have regular Internet access or digital skills; this has to be tackled in parallel with new initiatives. The private sector, nonprofit, and government relationship must be opened up to have a chance of success, and focus must shift from the ‘cool next thing’ to actually using that ‘thing' to help people, and to deliver opportunities.

Apple and San Bernardino

For the first time, President Obama commented publicly on the (now moot) dispute between the FBI and Apple. The FBI has requested that Apple provide a ‘back door’ into their operating system to enable access to encrypted data. The president’s position is that deep search of personal effects is normal on grounds of suspicion and on production of a warrant, so why should a digital search be treated differently? He went on to say that the Snowden revelations had ‘vastly overstated the danger to U.S. persons’ and that both Snowden and popular culture have increased public fear of security breaches. There is a conflict of values: If it is possible to make an impenetrable device protected from hackers, then how do we enforce laws? Decisions must be made to balance risks, and there must be a way to compromise as we have in other situations, such as airport security, where we surrender ease of passage to improve our own safety.

The tech community, however, is still coming down firmly on the side of Apple because a door once opened cannot easily be closed. Two days after the president’s keynote, I spoke to Rep. Will Hurd, chairman of the information technology subcommittee of the House of Representatives. He was clear that while there should be room for compromise, there can be no back door. He also reminded us that there has been no justification from the FBI as to why they need access to the physical device: They already have all the data from the cloud. Have prosecutors been blinded by tech, and forgotten the more traditional tools at their disposal?

The privacy leaders of Google, Facebook and Microsoft echoed this view at a panel session the following morning. Any ‘back door’ created for good will be exploited by the bad guys, said Microsoft’s chief privacy counsel, Mike Hintze. Erin Egan, chief privacy officer policy at Facebook, expanded on this: “We all work with law enforcement,” she said. “But we have a duty to protect the security of people who use our service.”

Google’s legal director of privacy, Keith Enright, highlighted ‘Engineering for Trust’ as a fundamental principle in this space. Even if the Apple case had specific validity (and Rep. Will Hurd’s comments throw this into question), legislation to require back-door development would open the floodgates and set a very dangerous precedent. Unfortunately, the current legislation used to determine government access to data predates the technology now in common use; the Electronic Communications Privacy Act was enacted 30 years ago, in 1986, five years before the advent of the World Wide Web.

What does the future hold?

The president’s visit to the SXSW Interactive event was a solid indictment of the importance of tech to government. By calling for the whole tech community to step forward and help, he opened the door to closer collaboration and real innovation in effective government.

The big firms gave a tantalizing glimpse of a welcome trend: the realization that privacy is infinitely nuanced, and therefore merits new ways of thinking. Ethics, they believe, will be the next development in the privacy space - should philosophers be on board from the start of feature and product planning? There is also a swing towards empowerment of users and perhaps, one day, the personalization of the privacy experience in line with individual sensitivities. An exciting time indeed for digital ethics and policy!

Kate Baucherel
BA(Hons) FCMA is a digital strategist specialising in emerging tech, particularly blockchain and distributed ledger technology. She is COO of City Web Consultants, working on the application of blockchain, AR/VR and machine learning, for blue chip clients in the UK and overseas. Kate’s first job was with an IBM business partner in Denver, back when the AS/400 was a really cool piece of hardware, and the World Wide Web didn’t exist. She has held senior technical and financial roles in businesses across multiple sectors and is a published author of non-fiction and sci-fi. Find out more at katebaucherel.com