Nextgov took a look at the record of Sen. Kamala Harris. D-Calif., on tech issues to see what technology perspective she could bring to the vice presidency.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., walks a fine line on technology issues: She represents Silicon Valley and has a track record of using data and technology to solve government problems. But at the same time, the first-term senator doesn’t shy away from questioning technology practices that may risk consumer privacy or national security.
To understand the tech background of the vice presidential candidate, Nextgov took a look at her record in the Senate, past statements and her work as attorney general of California. Though Harris is not always the leader on hot topics such as rural broadband access or protecting intellectual property, the first-term senator is savvy when it comes to technology, according to experts.
Daniel Castro, who works on tech policy issues as director of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Center for Data Innovation, told Nextgov Harris could be a strong voice for using technology to improve government services in a potential Biden administration.
“It seems like there's going to be someone who has that hands-on experience of actually using digital technologies for transformation of government, and to me that's actually an exciting idea,” Castro said. “We haven't had someone in government at that high a level that has that kind of experience or insight and I think that's a major asset to the ticket.”
Transforming Government with Technology
Two key projects stick out in Harris’s record for transforming government using technology: her OpenJustice initiative, which she spearheaded as California’s attorney general, and a bill she introduced in 2019 that sets aside funding for state and local governments to improve government services using technology.
Castro said Harris first came on the radar for technology issues when she rolled out the OpenJustice data project. OpenJustice takes the California Department of Justice’s statistical data and combines it with other public datasets to create a dashboard the public can use to track law enforcement interactions with the community.
When Harris was a U.S. Senate candidate in 2016, she told the San Diego Union Tribune the project is all about transparency and allowing experts access to data so that they can analyze it and explain what’s going on with policing.
“So I then talked to my friends, who are my colleagues in law enforcement and others and I say hey you know, those folks who are annoyed with Black Lives Matter should probably know that maybe perhaps with anecdote and maybe perhaps with emotion they’re telling us exactly what the data tells us,” Harris told the Union Tribune’s editorial board. “There are in fact racial disparities in the system. So let’s deal with that. Let’s use the data so we can drive public policy in a way that is based on fact and metrics instead of ideology or emotion.”
According to Castro, the OpenJustice project was one of the first of its kind, and has served as a model for other data transparency projects. He added governments in general are continuing to move in the direction of more data transparency.
More recently, Harris introduced a bill that would provide funding to state and local governments so that they can essentially build their own, localized versions of the U.S. Digital Service. The bill, called the Digital Service Act, would provide a $15 million pool of funding for local governments. It would also set aside an additional $50 million of funding per year for USDS.
“We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century,” Harris said in a statement. “The Digital Service Act will help harness top talent for the government, save taxpayer dollars, and put the power of technology to work on behalf of the American people.”
Harris has also sponsored legislation around data sharing within the federal government. For example, she introduced legislation in 2017 requiring the Homeland Security Department to facilitate increased information sharing about maritime-related cybersecurity risks. The bill required DHS to create a cybersecurity risk assessment model and develop plans to mitigate cybersecurity risks at the nation’s ports.
Regulation, Data Privacy and Equity
Harris is known for her tough prosecutorial style, and as a senator, she has showcased her precise questioning techniques on data privacy issues. In 2018, Harris took a stand on the importance of transparency when it comes to data privacy at a hearing probing the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“During the course of this hearing these past four hours, you’ve been asked several critical questions for which you don’t have answers,” Harris said to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “Those questions have included whether Facebook can track user’s browsing activity even after the user has logged off of Facebook, whether Facebook can track your activity across devices even when you aren’t logged into Facebook, who is Facebook’s biggest competition, whether Facebook may store up to 96 categories of user’s information,” and her list went on.
During Harris’s questioning, Zuckerberg admitted his company made a mistake in failing to notify users regarding the Cambridge Analytica data breach. Facebook knew of the breach in 2015, three years prior to the hearing.
When asked by the New York Times in an interview as a presidential candidate whether the major tech companies like Facebook as well as Amazon and Google should be broken up, Harris wouldn’t commit. Instead, she said her first priority was data privacy.
“I believe that the tech companies have got to be regulated in a way that we can ensure and the American consumer can be certain that their privacy is not being compromised,” she told the Times, adding that consumers should be empowered to make decisions about their personal information.
Harris has taken some criticism for her perceived relationships with Silicon Valley, especially in light of the fact that other presidential candidates running at the time such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called directly for Big Tech companies to be broken up.
A July Huffington Post piece asserts that Harris didn’t do enough as attorney general to confront “metastasizing” threats to American consumers and American democracy from big tech. The article was based on a tranche of emails the Huffington Post obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, a sociologist studying equity and technology at the Brookings Institution, said she doesn’t view Harris’s connections to technology companies as inherently problematic.
“Clearly, she has had a cordial relationship with Big Tech by the nature of her representation in California,” Turner Lee said. “But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think she’s going to be strong on enforcement of anti-competitive behavior.”
Turner Lee said Harris’ membership in the Congressional Black Caucus may lead her to put more pressure on tech companies to adopt better diversity and inclusion practices, too. She added Harris’ niche may be finding ways to use government to enhance transparency around equity issues like she did with the OpenJustice project.
One example of an equity provision Harris sponsored is the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act, which was introduced in 2019. The legislation requires the National Science Foundation to “convene a working group composed of representatives of federal statistical agencies to develop questions on sexual harassment in STEM departments in order to gather national data on the prevalence, nature, and implications of such harassment in institutions of higher education.”
Another issue important to the Congressional Black Caucus that Harris has also focused on is election security. Harris has been a major player on election security legislation in the Senate, and Turner Lee said she expects that advocacy to continue, particularly in light of voter suppression issues arising due to COVID-19 and the gutting of U.S. Postal Service operations.
Harris has been involved with nearly every significant piece of legislation on election security during her tenure in the Senate. She sits on the intelligence committee, which conducted a major investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Her questioning of Facebook’s data privacy and transparency practices in the 2018 hearing can also be understood as related to her advocacy for stronger protections against election interference.
Harris, along with Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., championed the 2017 Secure Elections Act, a bill that aimed to prevent foreign election interference by modernizing election cybersecurity. The legislation included enhancements to information-sharing practices between federal intelligence entities and state election agencies.
The bill ultimately failed in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Turner Lee said Harris is unlikely to lose sight of election security and foreign interference issues if she ascends to the vice presidency.
“Clearly, election security, mail-in voting, voter suppression, are going to be key issues and in this election off the bat,” Turner Lee said. “And I don’t see Kamala Harris backing away from those issues, nor do I see her giving a pass to companies that may in some way embolden that type of illegal activity just by the nature of being publicly available to share content.”
The Big Picture
The Obama/Biden administration is widely viewed as the first tech administration. Beginning in the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama harnessed technology and social media to reach voters in a way that had never been done before.
The U.S. Digital Service was also born during that administration, and Healthcare.gov, despite its problematic rollout, was an important milestone in the growth of digital technologies used for making government services more accessible.
But the ground has since shifted. Progressives within the Democratic party consistently push for greater regulation and intervention in Silicon Valley. Castro said the fact that Biden and Harris are trying to build a “big tent” coalition of support from the various wings of the party may mean adopting some of these stances.
As a senator, Harris has not shied away from speaking out on problems with the unregulated technology industry. Castro and Turner Lee both said she has been willing to go after anyone on important issues such as data privacy.
At the same time, Harris appears to have held on to the idea that technology can be harnessed to solve problems. Turner Lee said she wouldn’t be surprised if Harris and Biden take on more projects similar to the OpenJustice initiative, and maybe even an effort to pass privacy legislation.
“I do believe that there's going to be a lot of empowerment to the people when it comes to technology policy,” Turner Lee said.