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The Public-Interest Technologist Track at the RSA Conference

Our work in cybersecurity is inexorably intertwined with public policy and–more generally–the public interest. It's obvious in the debates on encryption and vulnerability disclosure, but it's also part of the policy discussions about the Internet of Things, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, social media platforms, and pretty much everything else related to IT.

This societal dimension to our traditionally technical area is bringing with it a need for public-interest technologists.

Defining this term is difficult. One blog post described public-interest technologists as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.” A group of academics in this field wrote that “public-interest technology refers to the study and application of technology expertise to advance the public interest/generate public benefits/promote the public good.”

I think of public-interest technologists as people who combine their technological expertise with a public-interest focus, either by working on tech policy (for the EFF or as a congressional staffer, as examples), working on a technology project with a public benefit (such as Tor or Signal), or working as a more traditional technologist for an organization with a public-interest focus (providing IT security for Human Rights Watch, as an example). Public-interest technology isn’t one thing; it’s many things. And not everyone likes the term. Maybe it’s not the most accurate term for what different people do, but it’s the best umbrella term that covers everyone.

It's a growing field -- one far broader than cybersecurity -- and one that I am increasingly focusing my time on. I maintain a resources page for public-interest technology. (This is the single best document to read about the current state of public-interest technology, and what is still to be done.)

This year, I am bringing some of these ideas to the RSA Conference. In partnership  with the Ford Foundation, I am hosting a mini-track on public-interest technology. Six sessions throughout the day on Thursday will highlight different aspects of this important work. We’ll look at public-interest technologists inside governments, as part of civil society, at universities, and in corporate environments.

  1. How Public-Interest Technologists are Changing the World . This introductory panel lays the groundwork for the day to come. I’ll be joined on stage with Matt Mitchell of Tactical Tech, and we’ll discuss how public-interest technologists are already changing the world.
  2. Public-Interest Tech in Silicon Valley. Most of us work for technology companies, and this panel discusses public-interest technology work within companies. Mitchell Baker of Mozilla Corp. and Cindy Cohn of the EFF will lead the discussion, looking at both public-interest projects within corporations and employee activism initiatives by corporate employees.
  3. Working in Civil Society. Bringing a technological perspective into civil society can transform how organizations do their work. Through a series of lightning talks, this session examines how this transformation can happen from a variety of perspectives: exposing government surveillance, protecting journalists worldwide, preserving a free and open Internet, bringing a security focus to artificial intelligence research, protecting NGO networks, and more. For those of us in security, bringing tech tools to those who need them is core to what we do.
  4. Government Needs You. Government needs technologists at all levels. We’re needed on legislative staffs and at regulatory agencies in order to make effective tech policy, but we’re also needed elsewhere to implement policy more broadly. We’re needed to advise courts, testify at hearings, and serve on advisory committees. At this session, you’ll hear from public-interest technologists who have had a major impact on government from a variety of positions, and learn about ways you can get involved.
  5. Changing Academia. Higher education needs to incorporate a public-interest perspective in technology departments, and a technology perspective in public-policy departments. This could look like ethics courses for computer science majors, programming for law students, or joint degrees that combine technology and social science. Danny Weitzner of MIT and Latanya Sweeney of Harvard will discuss efforts to build these sorts of interdisciplinary classes, programs, and institutes.
  6. The Future of Public-Interest Tech Creating an environment where public-interest technology can flourish will require a robust pipeline: more people wanting to go into this field, more places for them to go, and an improved market that matches supply with demand. In this closing session, Jenny Toomey of the Ford Foundation and I will sum up the day and discuss future directions for growing the field, funding trajectories, highlighting outstanding needs and gaps, and describing how you can get involved.

Check here for times and locations and be sure to reserve your seat.

We all need to help. I don’t mean that we all need to quit our jobs and go work on legislative staffs; there’s a lot we can do while still maintaining our existing careers. We can advise governments and other public-interest organizations. We can agitate for the public interest inside the corporations we work for. We can speak at conferences and write opinion pieces for publication. We can teach part-time at all levels. But some of us will need to do this full-time.

There’s an interesting parallel to public-interest law, which covers everything from human-rights lawyers to public defenders. In the 1960s, that field didn’t exist. The field was deliberately created, funded by organizations like the Ford Foundation. They created a world where public-interest law is valued. Today, when the ACLU advertises for a staff attorney, paying a third to a tenth of a normal salary, it gets hundreds of applicants. Today, 20% of Harvard Law School grads go into public-interest law, while the percentage of computer science grads doing public-interest work is basically zero. This is what we need to fix.

Please stop in at my mini-track. Come for a panel that interests you, or stay for the whole day. Bring your ideas. Find me to talk about this further. Pretty much all the major policy debates of this century will have a strong technological component -- and an important cybersecurity angle -- and we all need to get involved.

Posted on January 29, 2019

Bruce Schneier

by Bruce Schneier

Fellow and Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School

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