Federal Tech News · Software News For Professionals

Four Technology Related Issues That The Government Must Solve!

Constituents are yelling at their representatives in town-hall meetings about health care, tax reform, the budget and the environment, and other topics that have boiled over at the start of the Trump administration.

Perhaps you are among those cranky constituents. If so, please bring up the following tech-policy problems that could all be addressed by legislation that already exists — and in some cases, has spent years kicking around Capitol Hill.

Broadband privacy

The head-spinning rush by Republicans in the House and the Senate to block pending Federal Communications Commission rules banning Internet providers from selling the browsing histories of their subscribers without permission has gone over about as well as a Senate filibuster consisting of recitations of the browsing histories of randomly-selected taxpayers.

For instance, on Thursday night, constituents of Sen. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.) tore into him for backing that bill and suggesting they would have to wait for comprehensive privacy legislation covering not just Internet providers but sites like Google (GOOG, GOOGL) and Facebook (FB). One asked the senator if he’d sell his own browser history if the crowd took up a collection to pay for it.

There is a bill that would reverse this change — Sen. Ed Markey (D.-Mass.) has proposed one that would restore the pending rules. But S.878 has no realistic chance of passing with the current republican majority and president. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t ask you representative about it.

Email searches

Next up on the privacy checklist, we have the woefully overdue reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. This living fossil of a law assumes that email stored online for more than 180 days is abandoned and therefore shouldn’t require a warrant for law-enforcement investigators to search.

That was technologically unsound in the 80’s and in the age of webmail it’s absurd.

Sure, major email providers insist on warrants anyway, but are you sure you don’t have any data stored online with a smaller company that doesn’t want to tangle with prosecutors in court?

The House has already done its job by passing the Email Privacy Act, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R.-Kans.), in a voice vote — the closest thing to a unanimous vote. Senators, go and do likewise.

Border device searches

The odds of having Customs and Border Protection agents seize and search your phone when you return from an international trip remain below a hundredth of a percent — but CBP agents are also conducting those searches far more frequently compared to previous years.

The latest numbers, from a CBP spokesperson: 14,993 arriving travelers had their electronic devices searched from October through March, versus 8,383 in the corresponding period a year earlier. Note that this spike in searches predates President Trump; the Obama administration bears responsibility for this too.

The Protecting Data at the Border Act, put forth by a bipartisan group of representatives and senators, would require CBP agents to get a warrant to search your device’s data, with exceptions for emergency situations.

Building out broadband

We keep having arguments over issues like net neutrality (the principle that your Internet provider shouldn’t block, slow or surcharge sites) and broadband privacy because so many of us don’t have a choice of broadband providers.

The FCC’s latest stats show that only 24% of census blocks have two or more providers offering downloads of at least 25 megabits per second. Worse yet, 29% don’t have anybody selling a connection that fast.

Many Democrats advocate letting cities and counties build their own municipal broadband networks, to which Republicans often reply: “socialism!” But tech-policy types on both sides agree that a “dig once” policy requiring that federally-funded infrastructure projects include conduits for new broadband connections would make it easier to build new networks.

Such a bill exists — Rep. Anna Eshoo (D.-Calif.) introduced it in 2009! But Congress keeps putting it off to the side. Yet another draft of this Broadband Conduit Deployment Act is now circulating, and you should ask your elected representatives about it.

The fact that we’re waiting on legislation to make meaningful changes in those areas is another thing you might want to consider when speaking up to your hired workers in Washington.

Federal Tech News · General Tech News · Tech Overseas

The Tech Industry Is Worried About What Trump Will Do Next!

Much of the Collision conference that wrapped up here Thursday was filled with the sort of optimistic banter about The Future you can hear at many other confabs. But part of it doubled as therapy for tech types anxious and angry over what President Trump and the Republican majorities supporting him in the House and the Senate might do to shape that future.

As investor Chris Sacca put it in a talk Wednesday afternoon: “I have a very sincere fear for the plight of the United States of America right now.”

In general, participants at Collision seemed largely concerned about two aspects of the Trump administration’s agenda: immigration reform and the ongoing battle over net neutrality. At the same time, Sacca and other speakers at the conference noted their own responsibilities for Trump’s election win.

Borders and Immigration

A panel Thursday afternoon on the importance of immigration to the tech industry pointed out some competitiveness the U.S. would face if officials make it harder for foreign-born techies to bring their talents here.

“I think we’re on the wrong side of the trend,” said Hired founder Matt Mickiewicz. “In Singapore, you can literally get a work permit in one week [….] By June of this year in Canada, you’ll be able to get a work permit in just two weeks.”

As a result, he observed later in the discussion, tech companies “are now hiring a lot more engineers in Canada.”

Another panelist, Aspect Ventures managing partner Theresia Gouw, predicted a cut in the number of H-1B visas, the relatively small number of work permits provided to foreign engineers hired by U.S. companies that say they can’t find enough qualified employees among citizens.

“We certainly won’t be getting more of them,” she said, calling out that category of visa as “a priority of this administration.”

(During the campaign, Trump pledged to “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program”; in April, he signed an executive order supporting reform of that program.)

In a separate panel, Electronic Frontier Foundation executive director Cindy Cohn said that the civil-rights group planned to challenge another growing threat: Customs and Border Protection agents demanding that people arriving from overseas surrender their phones and even the passwords to them.

“We’re looking for a good test case,” she said — preferably a U.S. citizen subjected to this treatment.

Net neutrality

The swift moves by Trump’s newly appointed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to undo the net-neutrality rules passed by the commission under President Obama were no more popular among Collision speakers.

“I was stunned at the way net neutrality and all of the things we have fought for in terms of the internet just got blown away,” Aspen Institute president and CEO Walter Isaacson said in an onstage interview Thursday. “We’ve had these massive changes in the past few weeks, and I just keep saying, ‘where’s the outrage?’”

Dozens of tech firms paid for exhibit space in the convention center here in the hope of getting attention from investors or journalists, and many of their services involve sending large amounts of data across the internet.

Without regulations banning internet providers from blocking or slowing sites or just charging them for priority delivery of their data to their subscribers, those firms could risk shakedowns from internet providers. As Isaacson put it, “Half the companies trying to start-up in that hall are going to have problems if you eliminate net neutrality.”

Lessons learned?

The Trump talk wasn’t all gloom and rage. Some speakers observed that they’d had some long looks into the mirror to see what they’d missed.

In the immigration panel, Felicis Ventures founder Aydin Senkut said his firm had been working to broaden where it invests in startups: “We’re trying to back a lot more companies in cities that are not Silicon Valley, New York, and L.A.”

When asked how much responsibility the tech industry bore for Trump’s use of Twitter as a megaphone, Sacca pled guilty on behalf of the business for ignoring the possibility of abuse.

“I think we have all of the responsibility,” he said. “I think generally we’re naive.”

In a talk that closed out the conference, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian noted two memes that had trended across different parts of the Internet: people protesting Trump’s travel ban, and a FedEx guy rescuing an American flag about to be burned.

He noted that only the first got any discussion among people in his orbit, while the second drew a comparable amount of attention without his notice at the time.

“We have gotten really, really good at seeking out things that we enjoy,” he said. But that triumph of personalized Internet culture has inflicted a cost: “It’s given us these blind spots.”

Federal Tech News

American Tech Companies pressure Congress For Internet Surveillance Improvements

Facebook (FB.O), Amazon (AMZN.O) and more than two dozen other U.S. technology companies pressed Congress on Friday to make changes to a broad internet surveillance law, saying they were necessary to improve privacy protections and increase government transparency.

The request marks the first significant public effort by Silicon Valley to wade into what is expected to be a contentious debate later the year over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, parts of which will expire on Dec. 31 unless Congress reauthorizes them.

Of particular concern to the technology industry and privacy advocates is Section 702, which allows U.S. intelligence agencies to vacuum up vast amounts of communications from foreigners but also incidentally collects some data belonging to Americans that can be searched by analysts without a warrant.

“We are writing to express our support for reforms to Section 702 that would maintain its utility to the U.S. intelligence community while increasing the program’s privacy protections and transparency,” the companies wrote in a letter to Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee.

Section 702 is considered a vital tool by U.S. intelligence officials, estimated to be responsible for as much as a quarter of surveillance conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency.

But it has long been targeted by civil liberties advocates as too expansive and lacking in sufficient safeguards.

Disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed the sweeping nature of 702 surveillance, causing embarrassment for some U.S. technology firms.

In their letter, the companies asked lawmakers to codify the recent termination of a type of NSA surveillance that collected American communications sent to or received from someone living overseas that mentioned a foreign intelligence target.

Lawmakers should also require judicial oversight of government queries of data collected under Section 702 that involved American communications and narrow the definition of “foreign intelligence information” to reduce the collection of data that belongs to foreigners not suspected of wrongdoing, the companies said.

The letter asks for more leeway in how companies are allowed to disclose the number of surveillance requests and more declassification of orders approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Legislation currently being drafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee is expected to address all of the concerns raised in the technology companies’ letter.