Assessing the Obama Administration’s Tech Legacy

President Barack Ob, ... ]

President Barack Ob, ... ] Susan Walsh/AP

Experts weigh in on how the administration handled privacy, cybersecurity and other technology issues.

Since President Barack Obama was elected eight years ago, a great deal about technology has changed inside and outside the federal government.

Consider one simple metric: data production. In 2007, the world created some 295 exabytes of data, or roughly 404 billion CD-ROMs’ worth of data. Stacked on top of each other, those CDs would create a tower so tall it could reach the moon 238,900 miles away.

Today, as we near the end of Obama’s presidency, annual data production is no longer measured in exabytes but in zettabytes (that's 21 zeros). By 2020, the digital world we live in will be comprised of 44 zettabytes. That CD-ROMs tower would be 50 million miles high.

The current data deluge is just one major tech challenge federal agencies and the current administration face. Others include privacy, encryption, cybersecurity, IT spending transparency and creating digital-savvy teams across government. On Thursday, Nextgov and Government Executive hosted a panel of experts to review the Obama administration’s handling of these and other issues.

Obama Respects the Role of Technology

“I think if I were to summarize [Obama’s legacy], it would be a seat at the table,” said Aneesh Chopra, whom Obama appointed as the first U.S. chief technology officer in 2009. As an assistant to the president, Chopra reported directly to Obama, ensuring ideas from the CTO—often focused on innovation—are heard.

“In prior administrations, the notion of the role of technology was largely relegated to back-office procurement activity,” Chopra added. “It was largely an operational conversation around how governments perform.”

Instead, Obama sought innovation from tech gurus and others because, as Chopra said, “policymaking has to take into account how technology will advance” complex and important issues like health care and economic growth. In other words, Obama helped take technology out of the back office and into the forefront of government.

“Kudos to this administration for dragging the government into the digital era,” said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector.  

Hodgkins praised the administration’s push to open data and for “chipping away” at one of the most pressing issues for government: legacy technology. Many of the government’s most important systems are decades old, Hodgkins said, and in serious need of modernization. Even with new legislation called the Modernizing Government Technology Act that would create working IT capital funds in agencies so they could recoup savings for IT modernizations, Hodgkins said modernizing old systems will be a massive challenge.

“We have to look at the systems,” he said. “The challenge is to understand where we can take those capabilities. One reason a lot of those systems hugged by managers is that they’re stable. We have to figure out how to transition those main systems.”

Tech Wings Take Over

Aaron Snow, executive director at 18F, one of the Obama administration’s tech units, said he understands the “bottom line” criticism 18F received after a Government Accountability Office report showed the tech wing was spending $1 million more per month this year than it received. Congress asked pointed questions of the tech wing’s true value in an oversight hearing in the summer, but Snow said Thursday 18F’s value to government goes beyond the cash the fee-for-service unit hauls in.

“Between [U.S. Digital Service] and 18F, the literal bottom line is that we have helped agencies save hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years,” Snow said. “We’re here to help the federal government be a better buyer of digital services across the board, whether its vendors, cloud computing or whatever it may be. It’s not been easy.”

It’s also not the easiest thing to quantify. While it might not show up as a line item, the potential for cost avoidance as 18F works on projects is enormous, and General Services Administration officials are beginning to do a better job highlighting that potential.

Obama’s Silicon Valley outreach has spread to the Defense Department and intelligence community agencies, as well as individual civilian agencies, which—when funding allows—are hiring their own techies on 1- or 2-year tours of duty.

Will these tech wings survive a new administration? Snow said 18F if operating as if it will, though it has ceased the hiring binge it was previously on as a result of the coming election. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has said she’ll keep and expand 18F and USDS, while Trump has been less forthcoming on his tech agenda.

Privacy Debate Rages On

Sometime during Obama’s second term, mobile phones outnumbered the number of people in the world, as sure a sign as any that connectivity and the way humans communicate have irrevocably changed. Yet, as Chris Calabrese, vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said Thursday, little has been done to advance privacy law since the days rotary phones were en vogue.

“All the rules that govern personal information about each of us are incredibly old,” Calabrese said. “The worry is about control. People understand this information can be used in ways they don’t like, and that it’s growing denser in terms of what is known about each of us.”

The ramifications, like identity or bank fraud, one might expect from losing or compromising a mobile device are easy to imagine, but there are numerous examples where tech infringes upon privacy in less subtle ways. In one startling example, Calabrese highlighted how women in Planned Parenthood clinics were bombarded by anti-abortion ads on their mobile devices. The ads had been geo-targeted to the area in and around the clinic.

“Imagine the scary, creepy factor there: Does somebody know what I’m doing here?” Calabrese said.

“At some point, we are going to have to stop and set baseline rules,” Calabrese added.

The privacy debate will continue well into the next administration, and it's likely encryption technologies will be a key player in it. Encryption became a hot-button issue in early 2016 following the San Bernardino shootings, pitting Apple against the FBI. Calabrese said he expects a “middle ground” approach to win out, but warned the government not to turn its back to the problem. It would be a grievous mistake, Calabrese said, for the government to tell industry to “fix” the encryption problem.

Cybersecurity Is a Bipartisan Priority

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have released cybersecurity plans that—like Obama's—call for increased spending and importance on cybersecurity. Bipartisan agreement has not been common in this administration, but cybersecurity seems one area both political parties agree needs to improve. Nobody, it seems, wants another Office of Personnel Management breach-like scenario.

“They established a [chief information security officer], so they’ve elevated the issue of managing this kind of risk to that level and we applaud that,” Hodgkins said. “Cyber is front and center, and it is how all agencies are approaching what they want to buy.”