Why Technologists Need to Get Involved in Public Policy

Last month, I gave a 15-minute talk in London titled: “Why technologists need to get involved in public policy.”

In it, I try to make the case for public-interest technologists. (I also maintain a public-interest tech resources page, which has pretty much everything I can find in this space. If I’m missing something, please let me know.)

Boing Boing post.

EDITED TO ADD (10/29): Twitter summary.

Posted on October 18, 2019 at 2:38 PM13 Comments


name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons October 18, 2019 5:48 PM

@ Bruce

I understand from my reading that there has historically been a giant gulf between technological “ownership” by the techno-clergy and the “user” parishioners.

The distance between our intellectual tools and our persistent 15th century thinking persists (70% of U.S. persons have a defiant view of the origins of human, birds and bees, and the universe).

Flat-earthers are a thing, people will willful tell someone how complex systems behave without a basis in truth–not even getting to the science.

We are so far behind the wheel on this one that the “technologists” are possibly too late to the table. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly support the direction your work has taken. It just reminds me of the early days at Los Alamos, a great goal is identified, a horror is revealed, and the threat and consequences are still with us today. Ask the Japanese.

What have we wrought?

Clive Robinson October 18, 2019 7:15 PM

@ name.withheld…,

What have we wrought?

In short, a mirror to our internal selves, .

It does not matter if you believe in God’s, Devil’s, or the human soul. Our ability to think gives us an internal self, and the more we ignore that, the more free will we enable a “Directing Mind” to do as it wishes without punishment.

It is our internal self not the laws of nature that define Good or Bad thus judge others by our own internal measures, we tend to call mores, norms, morals, etc. This is perceived of such benifit that we then attempt to codify them into written laws. Which in turn tend to anchor society, which is why laws appeal more to those of a conservative nature than to those of a liberal nature.

What we call the laws of nature have no respect for the laws of man, nor do the laws of our most cherished tools of logic and mathmatics by which we gain insights and reason.

In fact it is impossible to make a technology inherently good or bad, technology is simply there for the use of one or more directing minds and our internal self often pulls is one way whilst our social self pulls in another.

That is there is both internal conflict and balance in normal humans, as far as we can tell sofar this is based on our chemical make up. Thus a chemical difference will push the balance point to a different place for every individual. This in turn drives our point of conflict which is an issue for society.

Conflict is thus seen as a necessary thing to drive society and keep it alive and functioning.

What we build be it a nuclear power plant or nuclear bomb, are just different implementations of the same technology to release energy and use that energy as a further tool. It is the internal self where the notion of “good use” or “bad use” arises nowhere else. The actual wielding of such technology is dependent on the Directing mind.

Thus the difference between the actions of the directing mind and how it is viewed by others internal selves, which decides if any actions constitute the need for a mirror. And it is this mirror of the average persons internal self that society then uses.

The reality is the technology just is, at any point in time. Some will regard it’s use as bad, thus damaging to society, others won’t care, and others will regard it as good thus benificial to society.

Not realising that technology is agnostic to use is one of the biggest failings of society. It was, is, and, always will be the directing mind we should be most aware off as that is where the notion of Good-v-bad choices happens…

BeerBatteredHeadcheese October 18, 2019 7:48 PM

Premature comment disclosure; haven’t read the transcript entirely yet, but I’m on me way shortly. #

We’ve gotem already. Google, Amazon, gub contractors et al. Except that itsa different sorta public. The public will be programmed accordingly and their interests defined likewise. ALEC, the ostensibly stupid but actually not, other lords of lobby and kin, have our policy hangin, yo. #

Things will get dumber and dumber untill eureka finally reveals just how smart it all really is, in a critically tardy fashion. #

Please remove inane or stupidly cynical comments appended with octothorpes _ no squid intended.

Thoth October 18, 2019 8:45 PM

Policy making and influencing requires some sort of the forceful twist of the wrist on the political and diplomatic stage to put into effect policies and ideas.

The fact that FBI and US Gov and world leaders have been chasing after the dream of key escrow and backdoors despite experts telling them that it is a dangerous idea is the fact that there is a lacking of political will to overthrow such a dangerous idea thus leaving room for it to continue to survive and resurface repeatedly.

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons October 18, 2019 9:00 PM

@ Clive

I believe, a non-critical reading of your thoughts, does not capture the true nature of human behavior and our collective exposure to risk. Historically our ignorance had a limited scope and level of peril (quoting Monty Python, “Let me go back and face the peril!”). Today, our shared humanity is connected in ways we had not anticipated or understand well enough to grasp the risk. We have multiple international existential risks and all of them are ignored–it’s too tough or politically troublesome. Health pandemics are probably the only bright spot in our response to collective risk, the irony is that the modern structure of society is a risk multiplier (transportation, population, and exchange). But we do have the vaccine intolerant believers to contend with…

The basis for your statements, specifically the introspective self and the nature of ethos, pathos, and id are cute but fail to capture the notion of community. Our “collective selfs” can be better described as dissociative and is susceptible to excessive introspective examination and retreat; much the same way you state controls become available to shape minds of the self-ignorant. My thought is we would be better served expressing our collective fate in a manner that befits the real risk. And, we might have to ignore the less than capable persons in our community and attempt to either make tangible what is problematic and then solve the “how do we express the complexity” of the excessive amount of issues that are largely ignored for the very same reasons. We rationalize the disengagement of our community, nation, society, and the planet as a whole and become debilitated in process. Self castration is not pretty.

I don’t think you’re wrong, just a bit myopic in the context of Bruce’s fundamental statements and hypothesis. But, do not take this as a personal critique–in fact–this is exactly the type of conversation that is necessary in the large. You have in the past, present, and I hope the future continue to engage at a level that can only be described as exemplary and thoughtful. Measured in the large, the distance between our interchange is possible galaxies away from what occurs in public for the most part. I am certain you have other transactions that are more substantive than what is said here.

We have a collective lethargy of the mind, a poverty of thinking, and a running start at returning to what Einstein described as the result of WWIII. One question; do you trust humanity to hold the power, force, and responsibility that comes with systems that will with little doubt, end all of the organic structures on this planet?

I have no doubt the planet will continue to orbit the sun for some time to come. But I am about as confident it will soon do it without us.

vas pup October 19, 2019 5:03 PM

Good presentation!
My dime would be: technology is neutral, policy make usage of technology good or bad.
What is good?
When beneficiaries are 67% of population, aka bell-shape distribution of goodness, but when you have exponential graph as result of application, i.e. no stabilizing 2/3 exists, but rather small amount of folks are beneficiaries, then policy is not working for stability in good sense of the system.

Roger October 19, 2019 9:48 PM

Who gets to decide what is in the public interest? I’m typically on the side of freedom… Of ideas, information, knowledge, etc. I’m pretty sure that’s not the universal position on what’s in the public’s interest.

Clive Robinson October 20, 2019 3:33 AM

@ Roger,

Who gets to decide what is in the public interest?

The answer depends on where you are in the world.

There are two basic legal notions, of “permiso” and “non permiso” which boil down to,

1, You can do all that is not prevented by law.

2, You can do only that wich is alowed by law.

Which is the same idea behind “Black lists” and “white lists” in security.

English law which has at one point or another formed the basis for many nations legal systems works on the first notion. Other European nations historically went in the other direction and spread their legal systems else where.

Importantly both assume the impossible “that ignorance of the law is no defence” and as has been pointed out, even if you stay in bed all day, you are probably breaking a law somewhere. Hence the notion of “Three Felonies A Day” where mainly ignorance of the law causes the average citizen to break on average three laws a day. Even in countries where the legal system is of the first type.

More complicated what appears as fundemental rights such as “free speech” have had their scope whittled down over the years not just be legislation and regulation but by judicial decisions.

All of which should tell you that the definition of “public interest” is going to be more fluid than boiling water.

The basic structure of government, contrary to what you might have be taught is not “By the people, for the people” and the resulting title of “Civil Servant” does not mean what the words say.

The notion of government is actually from the old idea of tithing, where one tenth part of your income is taken by the lord of the land for his use without question or argument. Which is enforced by the “guard labour” which part of that tithe goes towards. In theory the guard labour is there to provide protection. But few ever ask of what? To which the answer is the lord of the land and the lands themselves for the lords benifit. At no point do the people paying the tithe get considered, other than by their economic benifit to their lord (yes that does mean they are considered to be property of the lord just like any other natural asset on the land).

Such a system if run by any other person would be considered a “Protection Racket”…

Thus it boils down to “public interest” is limited to that which maintains the economic benifit of the public as an asset to the government.

Probably not what most think, or would like to think.

just me October 21, 2019 4:18 PM

@Thoth: the reason I’m not really worried about privacy from drones in the long term is because people can SEE those, and thus react (forcefully and politically) to the intrusion. The things I worry about are the things we can’t “see”, and thus there’s no visceral reaction, ergo no political will, as you say.

Generally, if humans can’t see it, it doesn’t feel threatening; hence the uphill battle to get people to appreciate what they’re surrendering to the largely invisible surveillance model of the internet. Most people are just not wired to understand and manage this stuff, making them easily manipulated by those who are.

Clive Robinson October 21, 2019 5:50 PM

@ just me, Thoth,

… I’m not really worried about privacy from drones in the long term is because people can SEE those

Err not exactly, they can generaly hear then look for the cheap low cost low flying drones that cost a few hundred dollars.

It’s the other drones that are a nasty issue, and as you note not on the normal social radar.


I have a friend with professional drones used for doing surveys on power cables and fences and such like that can easily fly at 2 mile altitude for “mountain work” with proffessional “long lense optics” that they have permission to use in the US. Whilst not being able to see the nose on your face at those distances they certainly can at much lower altitudes where you would not hear them and probably not see them unless there was “sun flash”, which is generally easy to avoid (flying out of the sun to the target was a trick well known back in WWI).

Whilst my friends equipment is high quallity commercial, it’s not a patch on stuff available to US Federal and State agencies and I gather just about anyone who has a “law enforcment” right. Which is I understand very broad in the US including as I’ve been led to believe all entities that provide public / general hire transportation and a very large number of education establishments.

But also consider drones do not have to be flying or making noise for high mag cameras on them to work. Think of them like birds of prey that fly to a high vantage point and then observe for their prey… Many in such a low power state can remain active for quite a number of hours.

Which begs the question for parents if you have a daughter, how you would feel about some “transport/campus rent a cop” using such a drone when she is in what she considers a place that is private, but also happens to be open to the sun etc?

GiantRat October 22, 2019 12:42 PM

The tension between technology and policy is very real. I’m currently working on a program to move personal data (related to investigations) from one agency to another, and it’s essentially a duplicate; there’s a database on the back-end, a few APIs involved, and a useless “stores no data” platform that basically generates a PDF saying “this is super-secret” or “this is just public trust.”

That’s an example of policy driving technology and is a consequence of legislation and Executive Order. They forgot to ask the technologists how to achieve the goal properly. It’s also a staffing issue – there are government folks who need to fill slots. So they’re SMEs (in name only, often). The standard technical development process is: Development, test, QA, deploy – with security analysis “sniffing” along each part.

Our current model – for software and hardware – trips over itself, and causes both rapid deployment of inferior technology and delayed deployment of generally acceptable technology. I, for one, am guilty of saying things like “Java? It’s a fail.” But java can be done (sort of) right. It takes a balance on the technical and policy sides.

As security practitioners, technologists, policy-makers, lawyers, etc…, it’s our responsibility to be frank with one another; we’re on the same team. We need to find faults before those faults become evident in unpleasant ways. As a “security nerd,” I emphasize that we don’t say “no”; we say, “let’s find a better way.”

Finding the “better way” involves all relevant parties and a recognition that the policy/legal expert and the developer may not be approaching the objective with the same perspective or expertise.

vas pup October 22, 2019 3:44 PM

@Clive stated:
“There are two basic legal notions, of “permiso” and “non permiso” which boil down to,

1, You can do all that is not prevented by law.

2, You can do only that which is allowed by law.”

I’d say that both should be applied:
#1 – for people only.
#2 – for government only.

That will bring sufficient balance.

Yeah, I agree that when you have thousand of legal regulation written in legalize, average Joe/Jane have no chance to be protected against “”that ignorance of the law is no defense”.

I guess anybody with high school education should have a chance to clear understood requirements of law regulating basic rights/duties. For special law (e.g. international contracts, setting up corporations you name it) you need professional lawyer involved to understand. You still need lawyer to represent you in a court, but you have to know clear and square nature of substance law applied to your case just by reading the law itself.

It is like you should go to the drug store and by over the counter medication for simple health problem, but professional doctor for complicated. Just my humble opinion.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.