Trump's pick for Commerce talks tech

Wilbur Ross, the Department of Commerce secretary-designate, discussed IT-intensive components of Commerce -- including cybersecurity, spectrum allocation, broadband accessibility and Census operations -- at his Senate confirmation hearing.

Wilbur Ross testifies Senate confirmation Jan 18

Financier Wilbur Ross, the incoming Trump administration's pick to lead the Commerce Department, testifies bef at his confirmation hearing Jan. 18.

Wilbur Ross, the financier tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as secretary of commerce, displayed a familiarity with the broad range of functions under the aegis of the highly federated agency at his Jan. 18 confirmation hearing.

On the tech front, members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee specifically pressed Ross on the future of the Census Bureau, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and tech topics including spectrum allocation and broadband expansion.

Ross said in answer to written questions from members that "integrating technology into the department to improve efficiency as well as the timelines, depth and breadth of data while improving the protection of intellectual property in this country" was among the three top challenges facing the department.

Ross also revealed that he has a personal connection to the Census. "I may be the only nominee for Secretary of Commerce that was a U.S. Census taker," he said of his work as a door-to-door enumerator while in college.

He told the committee that Commerce's research components are in need of modernization – with NOAA and its fleet and Census and its tech.

"I do think that it's important... to meet these pressing capital expenditure needs," Ross said.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) asked if the federal government could stand to benefit from leveraging commercial IT solutions.

Ross responded that he was "a big proponent of cloud," and hoped an expanded budget could improve the lagging systems. He also said he expects to see the incoming administration work closely with the private sector on upgrading government technology.

"I was impressed with how willing the high-tech people were to work with the administration" to tackle cybersecurity and lagging government tech, he said in reference to Trump's recent "Tech Summit."

Ross also committed to exploring how the National Telecommunications and Information Administration could facilitate opening federally held spectrum to commercial use.

While he said government's top priority is to avoid compromising national security, Ross added, "we also need to be rational" and figure out ways to "incentivize any department that has the spectrum to give it up."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked Ross about cybersecurity and ways to protect citizens in the face of threats to emerging commercial technologies.

Ross responded that, if confirmed, Commerce would prioritize cyber defense.

"To me, the most terrifying form of warfare would be if there was a simultaneous attack on the grid, banking system… and without protective measures, that could happen," he said. "I think cyber was a big enough issue in the campaign where everybody is sensitized to the issue… It wouldn't surprise me at all if that'll be the thing that'll come before Congress over and over again."

Ross also expressed support of the work by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "Developing standards for any innovative function is something the department will take seriously," he said.

Another major Trump campaign promise was to renegotiate the U.S.'s international agreements. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) wanted to ensure Ross would continue two agreements forged by his predecessor, Penny Pritzker: the Internet Names and Numbers Authority transition and the Privacy Shield agreement with the European Union that replaced the previous Safe Harbor agreement that covered U.S.-E.U. data transfers.

About the internet transition, which had bedeviled a number of Republican lawmakers, Ross said he was "not aware that there's a realistic way to do anything about it." On the Privacy Shield, Ross said "there will be a tension going forward between privacy, on one hand, and problems of localization of data and the implications they have on the Internet as we go forward."