The U.S. Desperately Needs Tech-Savvy Lawmakers But The Midterms Are Unlikely to Deliver

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Tech issues affect just about everything, one candidate argues.

Those in the know have long been concerned by U.S. lawmakers’ all-around ignorance when it comes to tech, but the issue soared mortifyingly into the public eye when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress in April.

Hauled in front of the Senate to face mounting criticisms of his company—a prime target for Russia’s attack on the 2016 U.S. election—Zuckerberg found himself answering rudimentary questions on matters like how Facebook makes money without charging customers. (Answer: “We sell ads, senator.”)

Instead of zeroing in on the company’s flaws, the day showcased legislators’ utter inability to govern the sector. “[It was] a moment where you see all these things coming together: the failure of government to be more proactive, foreign interference ramping up, and a Congress that doesn’t even know the questions to ask when you’ve got Zuckerberg sitting in front of them,” says Tracy Mitrano, an academic who spent 13 years as director of information technology policy at Cornell University.

Mitrano is running for Congress in New York’s 23rd district, in part to right this imbalance. She says the combination of Russian aggression and a lack of faith in Congress’s ability to fight it partly made up the “proverbial last straw” that drove her to run. She is one of only a couple of new candidates with expertise in the tech arena—and also boasts a law degree and a PhD in American history.

Global cyber laws

The Trump administration’s response to Russia has further convinced Mitrano, a Democrat, that her expertise is needed. National security advisor John Bolton said last week the U.S. is conducting “offensive cyber” action against Russian operatives, but Mitrano argues instead they should be setting up a framework of international law to govern cyber warfare. “We should have had a wake-up call to say, ‘Wow, this is out of control.’ We need to rethink our approach and not escalate to say, ‘It’s our turn as a nation state to attack you,'” she said in a phone interview with Quartz. “Everyone’s treating it like an adolescent game of Risk, but once you connect the dots to [threats to] the power grid and financial institutions, it’s very real.”

The Obama administration privately took the view that having no laws for cyber warfare was a benefit to the U.S., such is the country’s strength in the sector—and Vladimir Putin claims Obama turned down the offer of a cyber treaty with Russia in 2015. Mitrano warns that’s “a very, very perilous approach.” “Taking that approach, we will stumble on our own hubris. It will be at the expense of the people of the United States” she says. “If a government cannot keep its people safe, it is failing the first principle of what government is supposed to do in the first place.”

Rome fell from greatness due to breaches at its peripheries, Mitrano points out, arguing that America’s sprawling internet in an open, capitalist economy has similar weak chinks. “Here a criminal or bad actor has the advantage—all they need to do is find one weak link, and once they do that they will exploit it for all it’s worth,” she says.

China, by contrast, has incorporated the internet into its authoritarian structures with far fewer exposures. Where the U.S. divides its internet governance among 17 different agencies, China has just one, Mitrano says. “They get that the internet is like a prism through which all light goes and gets broken up. They want to control the prism—we are not doing that,” she says.

Tech doesn’t capture the imagination

In his desperation to get Congress to understand the threats posed by cyber vulnerabilities, former defense secretary Leon Panetta once stood on an aircraft carrier and warned of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” “We couldn’t get Congress to focus on the issue,” Panetta complained to David Sanger, author of The Perfect Weapon.

Some legislators are almost proud of their luddism, tech policy experts say. ”There are people on Capitol Hill who do not use email. How could you vote on internet policy if you don’t use email?” asks Richard Forno, assistant director of the Cybersecurity Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Things are exacerbated by Congress’s decision to abolish the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995, which provided non-partisan research on tech issues. Instead, lawmakers who know little about the subject too often base their decisions on information provided by lobbyists, Forno says.

Unfortunately for Mitrano, the electorate is similarly difficult to animate on tech. Mitrano says a survey conducted earlier this year showed only 4% of voters in her rural upstate New York district thought it was a “really important issue”—despite the area including Cornell and Ithaca colleges. Instead, she has focused on issues more at home with her agricultural voter base.

Other new tech-savvy candidates in the 2018 midterms include Joseph Kopser in Texas, a military veteran who founded and sold a successful tech start-up, and Josh Harder, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist running in rural California. Of the three, only Harder is a favorite to win.

Mitrano’s opponent, four-term Republican Tom Reed, won by 15 points in 2016. Recent polls suggest Mitrano has closed that gap to around 2 points, but FiveThirtyEight gives her just a 17% chance of winning.

Voters—and members of Congress—who view tech as a siloed issue are deeply misguided, says Amie Stepanovich, U.S. policy manager at Access Now, an NGO that advocates for digital rights. “There’s not very many issues you can think of today that are not tech issues,” she says. “That knowledge, experience, and background becomes critical no matter your specific focus as a legislator, to make sure you’re preparing to respond to the challenges that we’re seeing and going to see as time goes on.”

While her district may seem a long way from cyber threats focused on attacks on banks or the power grid, Mitrano warns that even the farmers there are at risk. A foreign actor messing with GPS systems would “paralyze” agriculture, which relies on GPS to plant crops, she says.