Renowned security expert and hacker Edward Felten's time as the first chief technologist of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has been "highly educational," he said at a USENIX conference keynote address in Boston Tuesday, urging fellow computer scientists to follow in his footsteps.
Technologists should seek out government posts because it gives them the opportunity to affect public policy, which often affects their jobs, Felten said.
Even if technologists don't attain positions of direct authority, their increased presence will incur a rise in "soft power," or influence for their points of view, according to Felten. People in other disciplines, such as economists, have been successful in gaining great prominence within government circles, Felten said. "They didn't do that overnight."
However, it's important to have realistic expectations, Felten said. "I am trying to move a very heavy weight, so I should only expect to move it a short distance," he said by way of analogy. "Even if you make an iota of difference, you've done a lot of good in the aggregate."
Felten is on leave from Princeton University, where he teaches computer science, and is known for his involvement in many high-profile security- and software-related matters, including the successful hacking of a voting machine in 2006.
The FTC is a policy-making agency with two main missions, namely consumer protection and antitrust law as well as a civil law enforcement agency, Felten said.
Felten's role there is not an operational one, he said. "I'm not the person whose phone buzzes when the network goes down." Instead, he serves as a senior policy adviser to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz "on all matters related to technology" and acts as a "technology ambassador to the world," he said.
Felten's talk was short on anecdotes or specific incidents from his tenure so far at the FTC. But he's set to leave the post later this year to return to Princeton, and hinted Tuesday that he'd be more forthcoming once that happens.
Instead, Felten offered a series of general guidelines on how technologists can successfully interact with government officials, who tend to fall somewhere along a "cluelessness scale," as he put it.
At level zero are people who are not experts, "but know how to find and work with experts," he said. "It's really kind of the desired state for someone who's a general-purpose decision maker. The art of being a good decision maker is not to be an expert at every level, it's the ability to function well."
Those on level one "can recognize experts, but can't work with them," he added. Those on level two "can't tell real experts from pseudo-experts," and those on level three fail to "even recognize there's expertise in a given field," Felten said.
But many of the clueless are willing and able to be helped, he added. "Policy makers hate looking clueless. One thing you can do to help is work with their fear and try to protect them against it."
Scientists often use two traditional methods when offering advice to public officials, neither of which work very well, according to Felten
The first is the "just the facts model," he said. "We'll give you the technical facts, and you make the decision. Everyone feels good about this. You don't have to get your hands dirty with politics and the decision maker feels good because they get to be the decider."
However, this approach is weak because "you can never transfer enough information to turn the decision maker into an expert," he said. "You can't transfer your intuition."
Instead, the expert usually ends up delivering a "brain dump," an overload of information that can't be effectively absorbed, Felten said.
The other typical method is for an expert to simply tell policy makers what their decision ought to be, Felten said. This tactic can be overbearing and officials simply stop listening, he added.
"A better approach is to start asking them questions," Felten said, comparing the situation to helping a friend from out of town choose a restaurant. "How much do you want to spend? Do you have a car? Are you a foodie or do you just want some fuel?" Armed with this knowledge, you can give your friend a much more nuanced and appropriate answer, Felten said.
This is easily applied to dealings with elected and appointed officials, particularly by helping them "eliminate options that are really undesirable," Felten said.
"I knew about this before I went to government but I didn't fully appreciate [it] until I spent time working there," he added.
One activist who spoke during another event at USENIX on Tuesday also called for technologists to get involved in political life, albeit not necessarily in an actual government job.
"Grassroots people don't have the level of expertise the people in this room have," said Mark Stanley, new media manager at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. "Second, if technology people speak up, their voices will be heard. They carry a lot of weight."
Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com