Technological State of the Union

There are many pressing issues that President Obama will address in tonight’s State of the Union address.  One of the issues that has seen some press, but mostly been relegated to the back burner, is the technological policies of the new administration.

You may recall the Cyberspace Policy Review, released earlier this year.  This work, and the resulting document, were badly needed, and also decently well-received amongst the tech sphere.  Some, including Purdue University’s CERIAS head Gene Spafford, took issue with a few things, namely the creation of the “Cybersecurity Coordinator”:

First of all, the new position is rather like a glorified cheerleader: there is no authority for budget or policy, and the seniority is such that it may be difficult to get the attention of cabinet secretaries, agency heads and CEOs.

Second, the position reports to the National Economic Council and OMB. […] Given the current stress in the economy I don’t expect any meaningful actions to be put forth that cost anything; we will still have the mindset that “cheapest must be best.”

Third, there was no mention of new resources.

Fourth, there was absolutely no mention made of bolstering our law enforcement community efforts.

This position was finally filled on December 21, 2009 by Howard Schmidt – who had previously served as a cyber advisor to President George W. Bush.  Like Dr. Spafford has said, it seems that there is nothing but more of the same in regards to America’s official stance on the digital world.  As they say, if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.

Where does that leave us for tonight’s address?  Ed Felten suggests there are 4 areas which must be improved to make a meaningful difference, and I would tend to agree:

  1. Improving Cybersecurity
  2. Making Government More Transparent
  3. Bringing the Benefits of Technology to All
  4. Bridging the Culture Gap Between Techies and Policymakers

The real challenge here is that each of these four pillars depend on one another, and must all be advanced simultaneously.  If we can bridge the gap between techies and policymakers, surely that will improve cybersecurity.  If we are able to make government more transparent, then that will work towards bringing the benefits of technology to all.  Can we simultaneously make government more transparent, and also improve cybersecurity – especially when so many of our cybersecurity initiatives are led by classified organizations?  Where do we begin?

I hesitate to think that Mr. Schmidt will be the catalyst for this change.  I also hesitate to think that President Obama will have the political capital to drive a meaningful shift in policy or practice – especially with the current struggles over healthcare, jobs, the bailout, or any number of issues.

Does this, then, mean that we must sit and wait for positive change to happen?  What happens in the meantime when Google and China seem to be racing towards the boiling point?  As individuals, who are often left responsible for their own security online, what recourse do we have?

Unfortunately, these are not questions to which I have an answer.  Like the rest of America, I will be tuning in at 9 PM (EST), and listening intently to see if President Obama mentions the state of US Cyber initiatives, and any plans for the future.  If progress on the issues is made as slowly as progress on the selection of the Cybersecurity Coordinator, it would seem that our cyber future may be bleak.  On the other hand, I truly believe that a concerted national effort, not unlike those that created the Space Program, could produce some very real, very positive, and very impactful results.

The floor is now yours, Mr. President.  We’re listening.

This essay originally appeared at Information Space.

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