The administration of the 44th President of the United States will be remembered for many reasons, but one theme which has been playing out since the earliest days of Barack Obama’s presidency is a predilection towards using popular and developing technologies. In his first few months in office, President Obama created the position of U.S. Chief Technology Officer, an official adviser to the President on tech policy and a role currently served by Megan Smith, a former executive at Google. Obama’s techie status is cemented by media reports of his long-time adherence to BlackBerry phones as well as his warm attitude and close relationship with major Silicon Valley players.
Despite this heavy tech focus throughout his term, President Obama was rather mum on the subject during his recent State of the Union address to Congress. He did say that America needed to find out “how to make technology work for us, and not against us,” citing concerns related to climate change. He later voiced issues related to technology’s ability to replace jobs not only on the manufacturing assembly line, “but any job where work can be automated.” He did praise the spirit of innovation that lives on in Americans since the days of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers.
White House activities surrounding the State of the Union, however, pointed towards a continuing push to further entrench the executive branch in the digital world. One day before President Obama gave his last address, the White House announced that it had opened an official account on the social media platform Snapchat. One of the draws of Snapchat is that messages disappear after a certain time, but White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has explained that a deal has been reached with the company to make sure the communications of President Obama will be archived.
The White House Snapchat announcement follows a few months after the Obama administration created an official Facebook page in November where political issues are discussed with social media followers. Elsewhere on social media, the official Twitter page for the White House has about 8.75 million followers. The administration even turned to crowdsourced lyric app Genius, to which it has uploaded an annotated copy of previous State of the Union addresses given by President Obama. The push for integrating social media into daily life at the White House has been pursued because of the heavy popularity of these programs, especially among younger demographics, and the hope that they could increase civilian engagement with the federal government.
The Obama administration has been more active in technology development circles in recent days than his State of the Union remarks might suggest. On January 8th, the Department of Homeland Security announced the formation of a Countering Violent Extremism task force, which was created to serve in the fight against violent extremism. That team will work across multiple federal agencies to coordinate efforts in research and analysis, engagement with counterterrorism stakeholders, media communications and interdisciplinary intervention.
The activities of the counterterrorism task force will require a good deal of cooperation from Silicon Valley tech firms and trust between those two sides has been strained in recent years. There are reports that foreign fears over data privacy in the wake of Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency revelations could cost the technology sector about $180 billion in lost business by the end of 2016. Efforts by the Obama administration to solicit collaboration from the tech sector have been rebuffed, most recently by Apple CEO Tim Cook who criticized calls by federal officials for the creation of special access “backdoors” allowing government agents access through otherwise secure encryption.
Of course, terrorist acts are a major influence of public opinion and it seemed telling that a speech given in November by European Commission official Vera Jourová at the Brookings Institution on the subject of U.S./EU safe harbor negotiations was heavily colored by the previous week’s terror attacks in Paris which claimed 129 lives. Although safe harbor rules protecting American tech firms use of data from European citizens were struck down because of concerns over NSA snooping, there is acknowledgment among many of the parties important to this debate that there’s a delicate balance to achieve between privacy and public safety.
The hacking of government servers by unauthorized parties has been another issue of growing concern in recent years, highlighted by last year’s revelations that 21.5 million Americans had their personal information, including some Social Security numbers and fingerprint data, compromised in a series of cyber attacks originating from China. In January, a hacking group reportedly led by a teenage ringleader was able to gain control of the e-mail account of John Holdren, senior advisor to President Obama on science and tech issues, with the help of an elaborate phishing scam.
Since 2009, the White House has issued a policy document entitled A Strategy for American Innovation, last updated this past October, which discusses government initiatives designed to encourage technological innovation within the United States. The most recent edition of the policy paper discusses the importance of investing in fundamental research, increasing access to STEM education, improving the nation’s digital and physical infrastructure as well as enabling immigrants to find ways of contributing to American innovation and the larger economy. The document also highlighted nine areas of strategic opportunity for innovation sectors that can lead to general shared prosperity, including advanced manufacturing, precision medicine, advanced vehicles, smart cities and energy efficient technologies. The White House’s upcoming 2017 budget will include appropriations of nearly $4 billion to be spent over the next decade on pilot projects in autonomous vehicle development.
Recently, the President has promised to redouble America’s efforts to pursue technological innovation to address concerns related to climate change. The recent Paris climate conference near the end of last November saw the United States, along with 19 other countries, agreeing to double its research and development investment into clean energy technologies. “Mission Innovation,” as the initiative is called, involves countries representing a combined 75 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from electricity. A parallel initiative known as the Breakthrough Energy Coalition involves 28 private investors from 10 countries, including famed tech billionaire Bill Gates, who have agreed to contribute substantial amounts of private capital to similar development projects.
The President has also been an active player in discussions on technological innovation which have taken place on the foreign stage. In April, Obama will make only his fifth trip to Germany during his term to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and also to visit Hanover Messe, the world’s largest industrial tech trade show. Obama’s visit to the event, a goodwill gesture meant to strengthen tech industry ties between the U.S. and the EU, marks the first time that a sitting U.S. President has attended; 2016 is also the first year that the U.S. has participated in Hanover Messe as a partner country. President Obama is scheduled to make an appearance at the trade show’s opening ceremonies. The trade show expects to see 5,000 companies from 70 countries exhibiting during the four-day event.