Why Congress Needs The Office Of Technology Assessment More Than Ever
from the bring-it-back dept
In 2015, following a tragic shooting in San Bernardino, California, Congress faced a difficult issue. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) was in possession of a locked iPhone that belonged to one of the shooters, and it wanted to gain access to that phone as part of its investigation. Members of Congress found themselves in the middle of a contentious debate over whether Apple should be required to unlock the phone to give the FBI access to its contents. During this pivotal time, Congress did not have an unbiased source of information to turn to for an explanation of the technical feasibility and societal implications of requiring Apple to enable the FBI to bypass those protections. In the absence of such a source, we were forced to rely solely on the input of the FBI and of Apple?two players who had strong, conflicting interests at play in the debate.
But that wasn?t always the case. For more than twenty years we had the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an independent, bipartisan agency set up to provide unbiased information on technology and its potential impacts. However, in 1995 the agency was defunded, stripping Congress of the ability to access unbiased tech advisors as we entered the digital age. Today, as Americans are feeling the effects of emerging technologies?including issues around data privacy and artificial intelligence?we are experiencing the repercussions of the decision to defund this vital piece of the Congressional support system.
Although some have suggested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO)?s new Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team should fulfill the role of the OTA, or that the combination of GAO and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) can meet Congress? technology expertise needs, relying solely on GAO and CRS for all of our technology assessment needs is a short-sighted solution. Despite the potential of GAO?s new STAA team and the fine tradition of CRS, neither of these two organizations?independently or combined?fill the void left by the shuttering of the OTA. In the ecosystem of Congressional support agencies CRS summarizes; GAO evaluates; and the OTA anticipates.
During the encryption debate following the San Bernardino shooting, CRS generated a report outlining the debate and summarizing existing knowledge and laws on encryption and law enforcement investigations. GAO could have initiated a study focused on analyzing what happened and how the situation could be handled in the future. However, only the OTA is set up to anticipate this issue and have the foundational expertise to inform Congress about both the technological and policy questions at play when the issue arose.
Americans are starting to take notice of the lack of effective lawmaking following some of the biggest technology scandals in recent times. Without the OTA?s forward-thinking approach, Congress? ability to address the technological challenges of the present, and of the future, will fall short of what effective lawmaking during the ever-evolving digital age demands. A well-funded agency whose sole purpose is advising Congress on technology issues, free from the influence of corporate and special interests, is absolutely necessary.
Congress? technology assessment needs will only continue to grow as we work to anticipate the potential benefits and effects of emerging technologies. As we consider the use of technologies such as AI, facial recognition, quantum computing, and emerging energy storage and generation in both the private and public sectors, it is increasingly important that Congress have unbiased assessments of what is on the horizon. While CRS and GAO are well equipped to look at what is known and what has already happened, and to identify questions and gaps, the OTA?s role is to chart the way forward by generating new knowledge that answers those questions and fills those gaps.
We must make strategic investments in our ability to encourage innovation, understand its benefits, and help constituents be best equipped for the challenges emerging technologies may bring. Technology is transforming our daily lives. We should not fear it; we should be well-prepared to deal with the changes it will create?the Office of Technology Assessment will help us do just that.