No computer is safe. I don’t care what they say.
With a few weeks to go until Donald Trump becomes President of the United States, the businessman’s position on tech remains, at best, opaque, at worst, downright baffling.
Silicon Valley was, with a few notable exceptions, lined up against the Trump ascendency, with support for the Clinton campaign more obvious.
Following Trump’s victory though, selected tech leaders were invited to the Trump Tower for a photo opportunity with the President Elect, during which he assured them that he was a big fan of the industry:
We want you to keep going with the incredible innovation…There’s nobody like you in the world.…Anything we can do to help this go along, we’re going to be there for you.
By New Year’s Eve, with Trump under pressure over allegations of Russian hacking and interference in the US electoral process, his tone was markedly less tech-friendly – and certainly less tech-savvy.
Claiming “I know a lot about hacking”, he advised that computers were fundamentally insecure and appeared to suggest that they shouldn’t be trusted with important data:
You know, if you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way…I have a boy who’s 10 years old, he can do anything with a computer. You want something to really go without detection, write it out and have it sent by courier.
And presumably hope that the courier (a) can be trusted or (b) doesn’t get intercepted and the important information read or stolen.
If this really is Trump’s thinking, I can see some issues coming up around data transfer and data sovereignty. Is a Trump administration going to adopt an increasingly ‘data here’ policy? With the European Union hellbent on its own protectionist data residency legislative regime, the Balkanization of the global cloud industry looks increasingly possible.
Trump has also recently stated:
I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole, you know, age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.
If the mindset is to not trust computers and to assume that they make life more complicated, then what does that mean for the progress that’s been made during the Obama years in office around digital transformation of government, a shift that’s predicated on tech making lives less complicated?
To do list
As part of the transition process, The Office of Science and Technology Policy Executive Office to the President yesterday published its exit memo to the incoming administration, effectively a ‘to do’ list for government tech policies. This includes 10 actions that OSTP says need to be pursued to foster innovation.
(1) Invest in fundamental research to address societal needs
The Federal Government must bear proportionally the largest burden for basic research because high risk and high uncertainty about timing and magnitude of returns limit the private sector’s incentive to contribute. Simply supporting research is not sufficient, however. Federal agencies should ensure that research results are made available to other scientists, the public, and innovators who can translate them into the businesses and products that will improve our lives.
Likelihood? This should appeal to the business thinking, but is also likely to have some impact on the Trump team talking in terms of government bailouts and state support and, of course, the dreaded crony capitalism.
(2) Get the right tech people in place
Make sure that top tech and science talent wants to work in government and empowering such talent to change the way the Federal Government delivers services and makes policy at the most senior levels.
Likelihood? Surely a no-brainer, but of course not as simple as it sounds, as we’ve seen across government all around the world.
(3) Identify and pursue ‘Grand Challenges’.
In other words, think big on topics like AI, automation, robotics, cognitive science etc.
Likelihood? Thinking big is something that will appeal – let’s face it, Trump’s not exactly shy of grandiose claims – but I suspect it will come in the form of getting people to Mars etc. AI and robotics et al will be perceived as job killers.
(4) Increase access to high quality STEM education.
There’s a need for one billion STEM graduates in the US workforce by 2022 so this needs to be a public education priority.
Likelihood? Not seeing it.
(5) Improve diversity, equity and inclusion and mitigate the impacts of bias.
OSTP argues that the US’s role as tech leader is enhanced by the “unparalleled diversity of the American people and the diversity of ideas that they generate”. The Federal Government must do everything it can to support greater diversity and inclusion.
Likelihood? The tech industry itself has been on collision course with highest level members of the incoming Trump administration on diveristy and inclusion. This has potential to lead to conflicts ahead. Fine words need to be matched by deeds.
(6) Support innovative entrepreneurs.
This means addressing income inequality, promoting competitive markets, reducing unduly restrictive occupational licensing, and scaling up rapid skills training. It also means ensuring early stage entrepreneurs have access to start-up capital.
Likelihood? Again this should appeal to the business mentality as a basic principle, but some of the requirements – such as those around income inequality – may be stumbling points.
(7) Maximize economic and social return from Federal Government data.
In other words, use open data and data science to underpin, inform and support Federal agencies and decision-makers in their policy roles.
Likelihood? Use facts to make big decisions. Well, let’s come back on that one in a few months time and see where we’ve got to.
(8) Increase federal agency capacity for innovation.
This can be facilitated by upgrading digital collaboration tools, allowing for real-time shared documents, instant messaging, video conferencing, access to social media and wiki-based sites for team projects, data and content management.
Likelihood? You can’t trust computers.
(9) Promote open government through transparency, participation and collaboration.
OSTP says that work to date here has led to cost savings, fuelled American businesses, improved civic services, informed policy, catalyzed research and scientific discoveries, driven transparency and accountability, expanded and broadened collaboration, and increased public participation in the democratic dialogue.
Likelihood? Building a culture of transparency and openness in government. Again, let’s come back to this one in a few months time. Maybe by then the President Elect’s tax returns will have been released.
(10) Continue international tech and science co-operation.
OSTP has represented the White House at meetings with other countries on tech partnerships, including China, India and Japan, as well as participating in tech-related initiatives with “Muslim-majority countries”.
Likelihood? Get real! There’s already talk of trade wars with other nations, particularly China. And is an administration that’s talked about building a Muslim registry really one that’s going to be open to tech sharing with Muslim countries?
An interesting to-do list that I suspect will not find favor in quite a few quarters of the incoming administration. There’s an inherent mistrust of transformative organizations like OSTP on the American Right, which we’ll look at here. And I’m rather afraid that the people who took Trump to power aren’t going to be particularly bothered about what happens to such bodies over the next four years as they have some clear priorities that have just been captured in a new study. We’ll pick that up here as well.
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