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NSA Critic Named No. 2 White House Tech Official

Flickr user Greg Peverill-Conti

A highly regarded information security researcher and outspoken critic of National Security Agency activities has been named a White House deputy chief technology officer, the Obama administration announced Monday.

At first blush, Ed Felten might seem a surprising choice. Just two months ago, the current Princeton University computer science professor called attention to a wrong-headed move on the government's part to ask for "backdoors" in locked, or encrypted, communications.  

This is but one of his pointed assessments of a law enforcement push to weaken certain security controls.

After ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed Verizon was providing call records on U.S. citizens to the intelligence agency, Felten filed a declaration in support of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against "mass call-tracking."

Felten's research interests include demonstrating how personal behavior can be inferred from large data sets and how to block NSA from seeing the tracking data companies collect on consumers online.

Here's one June 2013 NSA rebuke from Felten’s personal Twitter account.

When White House cyber czar Michael Daniel infamously said last summer that "being too down in the weeds at the technical level could actually be a little of a distraction," in his role, Felten was part of a chorus on Twitter that slammed Daniel’s remarks.

Felten’s admirers include cryptography expert Bruce Schneier, who highlighted his "excellent essay on the damage caused by the NSA secretly breaking the security of Internet systems."

ACLU technologist Christopher Soghoian, in a tweet on Monday, praised Felten’s appointment.

Yet, while he disapproves of some of the government’s present policies, Felten's resume suggests a deep appreciation for the regulatory process and law enforcement. He previously was the Federal Trade Commission's first-ever chief technologist and worked at the Justice Department's Antitrust Division.

"Ed joins a growing number of techies at the White House working to further President Obama’s vision to ensure policy decisions are informed by our best understanding of state-of-the-art technology and innovation, to quickly and efficiently deliver great services for the American people, and to broaden and deepen the American people’s engagement with their government," new colleagues U.S. CTO Megan Smith and Alexander Macgillivray, another deputy CTO, said in a blog post.

Felten is expected to enlighten some of his less-techie cyber peers, including, perhaps, Daniel.

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