Cybersecurity for the Public Interest
The Crypto Wars have been waging off-and-on for a quarter-century. On one side is law enforcement, which wants to be able to break encryption, to access devices and communications of terrorists and criminals. On the other are almost every cryptographer and computer security expert, repeatedly explaining that there’s no way to provide this capability without also weakening the security of every user of those devices and communications systems.
It’s an impassioned debate, acrimonious at times, but there are real technologies that can be brought to bear on the problem: key-escrow technologies, code obfuscation technologies, and backdoors with different properties. Pervasive surveillance capitalism—as practiced by the Internet companies that are already spying on everyone—matters. So does society’s underlying security needs. There is a security benefit to giving access to law enforcement, even though it would inevitably and invariably also give that access to others. However, there is also a security benefit of having these systems protected from all attackers, including law enforcement. These benefits are mutually exclusive. Which is more important, and to what degree?
The problem is that almost no policymakers are discussing this policy issue from a technologically informed perspective, and very few technologists truly understand the policy contours of the debate. The result is both sides consistently talking past each other, and policy proposals—that occasionally become law—that are technological disasters.
This isn’t sustainable, either for this issue or any of the other policy issues surrounding Internet security. We need policymakers who understand technology, but we also need cybersecurity technologists who understand—and are involved in—policy. We need public-interest technologists.
Let’s pause at that term. The Ford Foundation defines public-interest technologists as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.” A group of academics recently wrote that public-interest technologists are people who “study the application of technology expertise to advance the public interest, generate public benefits, or promote the public good.” Tim Berners-Lee has called them “philosophical engineers.” I think of public-interest technologists as people who combine their technological expertise with a public-interest focus: by working on tech policy, by working on a tech project with a public benefit, or by working as a traditional technologist for an organization with a public benefit. Maybe it’s not the best term—and I know not everyone likes it—but it’s a decent umbrella term that can encompass all these roles.
We need public-interest technologists in policy discussions. We need them on congressional staff, in federal agencies, at non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in academia, inside companies, and as part of the press. In our field, we need them to get involved in not only the Crypto Wars, but everywhere cybersecurity and policy touch each other: the vulnerability equities debate, election security, cryptocurrency policy, Internet of Things safety and security, big data, algorithmic fairness, adversarial machine learning, critical infrastructure, and national security. When you broaden the definition of Internet security, many additional areas fall within the intersection of cybersecurity and policy. Our particular expertise and way of looking at the world is critical for understanding a great many technological issues, such as net neutrality and the regulation of critical infrastructure. I wouldn’t want to formulate public policy about artificial intelligence and robotics without a security technologist involved.
Public-interest technology isn’t new. Many organizations are working in this area, from older organizations like EFF and EPIC to newer ones like Verified Voting and Access Now. Many academic classes and programs combine technology and public policy. My cybersecurity policy class at the Harvard Kennedy School is just one example. Media startups like The Markup are doing technology-driven journalism. There are even programs and initiatives related to public-interest technology inside for-profit corporations.
This might all seem like a lot, but it’s really not. There aren’t enough people doing it, there aren’t enough people who know it needs to be done, and there aren’t enough places to do it. We need to build a world where there is a viable career path for public-interest technologists.
There are many barriers. There’s a report titled A Pivotal Moment that includes this quote: “While we cite individual instances of visionary leadership and successful deployment of technology skill for the public interest, there was a consensus that a stubborn cycle of inadequate supply, misarticulated demand, and an inefficient marketplace stymie progress.”
That quote speaks to the three places for intervention. One: the supply side. There just isn’t enough talent to meet the eventual demand. This is especially acute in cybersecurity, which has a talent problem across the field. Public-interest technologists are a diverse and multidisciplinary group of people. Their backgrounds come from technology, policy, and law. We also need to foster diversity within public-interest technology; the populations using the technology must be represented in the groups that shape the technology. We need a variety of ways for people to engage in this sphere: ways people can do it on the side, for a couple of years between more traditional technology jobs, or as a full-time rewarding career. We need public-interest technology to be part of every core computer-science curriculum, with “clinics” at universities where students can get a taste of public-interest work. We need technology companies to give people sabbaticals to do this work, and then value what they’ve learned and done.
Two: the demand side. This is our biggest problem right now; not enough organizations understand that they need technologists doing public-interest work. We need jobs to be funded across a wide variety of NGOs. We need staff positions throughout the government: executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. President Obama’s US Digital Service should be expanded and replicated; so should Code for America. We need more press organizations that perform this kind of work.
Three: the marketplace. We need job boards, conferences, and skills exchanges—places where people on the supply side can learn about the demand.
Major foundations are starting to provide funding in this space: the Ford and MacArthur Foundations in particular, but others as well.
This problem in our field has an interesting parallel with the field of public-interest law. In the 1960s, there was no such thing as public-interest law. The field was deliberately created, funded by organizations like the Ford Foundation. They financed legal aid clinics at universities, so students could learn housing, discrimination, or immigration law. They funded fellowships at organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP. They created a world where public-interest law is valued, where all the partners at major law firms are expected to have done some public-interest work. Today, when the ACLU advertises for a staff attorney, paying one-third to one-tenth normal salary, it gets hundreds of applicants. Today, 20% of Harvard Law School graduates go into public-interest law, and the school has soul-searching seminars because that percentage is so low. Meanwhile, the percentage of computer-science graduates going into public-interest work is basically zero.
This is bigger than computer security. Technology now permeates society in a way it didn’t just a couple of decades ago, and governments move too slowly to take this into account. That means technologists now are relevant to all sorts of areas that they had no traditional connection to: climate change, food safety, future of work, public health, bioengineering.
More generally, technologists need to understand the policy ramifications of their work. There’s a pervasive myth in Silicon Valley that technology is politically neutral. It’s not, and I hope most people reading this today knows that. We built a world where programmers felt they had an inherent right to code the world as they saw fit. We were allowed to do this because, until recently, it didn’t matter. Now, too many issues are being decided in an unregulated capitalist environment where significant social costs are too often not taken into account.
This is where the core issues of society lie. The defining political question of the 20th century was: “What should be governed by the state, and what should be governed by the market?” This defined the difference between East and West, and the difference between political parties within countries. The defining political question of the first half of the 21st century is: “How much of our lives should be governed by technology, and under what terms?” In the last century, economists drove public policy. In this century, it will be technologists.
The future is coming faster than our current set of policy tools can deal with. The only way to fix this is to develop a new set of policy tools with the help of technologists. We need to be in all aspects of public-interest work, from informing policy to creating tools all building the future. The world needs all of our help.
This essay previously appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of IEEE Security & Privacy. I maintain a public-interest tech resources page here.