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.

Filed Under: congress, office of technology assessment, ota, politicians, tech literacy


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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Egbert Memphremagog, 1 May 2019 @ 11:06am

    "Politically / Corporately Correct Technology Assessment"

    Is what you mean. At present, they're just not reaching the decisions that you want to further the corporate / globalist surveillance state.

    Didn't read more than headline. [Not even the by-line.] Don't need to.

    [Have now, every word. -- And I'm right, didn't need to! Though written by Our Public Servants and weasely, it's clear that the goal is to either A) keep available data from being used to solve actual crime, and B) to promote / protect the vast corporations which de facto control us.

    Take: "We should not fear it" -- meaning the total surveillance state as arbitrarily implemented by corporations according only to how much money they can gain. Not a hint here of simply stopping the very collection / collating of data that raises the question in first place. No, we must all accomodate to the computerization and the implicit corporate control systems.]

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Shufflepants (profile), 1 May 2019 @ 11:07am

    It's probably just my cynicism...

    But in this day and age, with our luck, if we did have one, it would probably be lead by some one who proudly doesn't use email.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2019 @ 11:07am

    Yes that's a good logical argument.
    But the post trueth era came about because we're also in the post-logical thinking era.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2019 @ 11:20am

    I can still recall when the OTA was shuttered, and one of the first victims was Phil Zimmerman and his Pretty Good Privacy. Interesting how we've come full circle, and encryption is still the thing that lawmakers, law enforcers, law breakers, corporations and citizens all have wildly different views on.

    I'm not sure the OTA is the entire solution here, as the OTA existed prior to PGP, and was partially responsible for real encryption being treated the same way as nuclear arms (there's still a file on record somewhere permitting me limited rights to deal arms internationally because I needed to import/export some chips with built-in 3DES).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 1 May 2019 @ 2:14pm

    how old do you NOT be...

    Anyone under 60, Should have SOME understanding of basic tech...
    And if they dont, they better find a better KID to fix their TV/Computer/Cellphone/Alarm system/alexa/Seri/.../..../..../...................
    Because this Stuff has been happening long ENOUGH that those elected should have Some awareness of Something besides Politics..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bamboo Harvester (profile), 2 May 2019 @ 7:28am

      Re: how old do you NOT be...

      But nobody TOLD them how it works.

      That's the reason for killing the OTA and a host of other "bodies" whose duty was to inform government officials of "real stuff".

      It allows them to plausibly deny responsibility.

      It's difficult to say "I didn't know" (and be believed) when there are entire committees whose ONLY job is to tell you that information.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 1 May 2019 @ 2:22pm

    Now if only we could get them to listen to the experts rather than the lobbyists... but I have little hope of that happening.

    On the upside it means its only a matter of time until we get another 'The Internet is a series of Tubes" meme to have blocked by the filters in the EU....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 May 2019 @ 8:31pm

    Hey Congressmen,

    Take a look at the comments on the other articles on this site.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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