Yesterday, the White House named Ed Felten, a Princeton computer science professor, as a deputy chief technology officer.
The current tech advisors staffing the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy came from big tech companies: Megan Smith, chief technology officer, was a vice president at Google, while Alexander Macgillivray, deputy chief technology officer, was a general counsel at Twitter.
Felten, in contrast, brings an academic perspective to policy discussions. Over the course of his career, Felten has dug deep into a range of technical–and often controversial–problems. He is a privacy and security expert, with a particular interest in how these issues play out in the media. In 2001, for instance, as Napster was being shut down, he wrote about the weaknesses in music security systems. This earned him the wrath of music organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America, who feared that his findings would only spur more music-stealing behavior.
In 2006, he examined the security of voting machines, ultimately proving how easy they were to hack. (He even made a handy video demonstrating how to steal an election in exactly one minute.) More recently, Felten has been parsing through the complexities of bitcoin, offering insight into how cryptocurrencies work and making the case that they will become an important form of money in the years to come.
Felten is an interesting choice for President Obama given that he has been an outspoken critic of the National Security Agency over the last few years. After Edward Snowden’s revelations about the government’s surveillance programs, he strongly argued that the NSA should stop spying on Americans’ phone records without just cause. He publicly supported a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the government’s mass call-tracking policies. In his own research, he has demonstrated that it is harmful for the NSA to gather metadata, since even large data sets can offer insight into personal behavior patterns.
It is unclear how Felten’s strong views will impact the government’s surveillance programs going forward, but one thing is for sure–tech policy discussions at the White House are about to get a lot more heated.