How the Zoom Freakout Shows the Need for an Office of Technology Assessment

In the past few days, Zoom has been on the receiving end of bad press over “Zoom-bombing” and unpleasant moments experienced in some of the thousands of classes, dance parties, social gatherings and public meetings that have been held on the platform during the COVID-19 lockdown. The company has been quick to respond to bug reports and rolled out multiple updates.

Unfortunately for many government and institutional users of the platform, these steps were not enough to overcome fear raised by the flood of negative headlines (some accurate; some hyperbolic). The New York and Clark County, Nev., school systems have banned the use of Zoom. In a recent call with state legislators, I heard the concerns echoed in reticence to use Zoom for constituent engagement. I have similarly heard that congressional staff and members are spooked and not likely to use the technology.

To me, these responses felt heavy-handed, but, like so many in those institutions, I am not a privacy or security expert. Luckily, as a board member of People-Centered Internet, I happen to know quite a few people who are; so I turned to this network for perspective. To a one, they agreed that the concerns were overblown or not unique to Zoom; that the company acted responsibly and transparently in addressing bug reports; and that the most prevalent issues raised can be addressed by user access controls (i.e. setting up meetings to require a password, which, as of Friday, Zoom now requires as a default).

As OODA co-founder and former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Bob Gourley, put it:

“I think you are either going to use video teleconferencing or not. And if you use it you are going to use a system with vulnerabilities. So why not use one where the company is proven to take rapid action to address problems like Zoom.”

In the span of about two hours on a Sunday, by tapping this network of tech pioneers and practitioners, I was able to receive input from experts that helped me make an informed decision about whether a particular technology was appropriate for my purposes (test-driving technology for congressional use by conducting mock hearings).

Unfortunately, that is not the case for Congress, for the New York school system and for the tens of thousands of jurisdictions and organizations around the country that are trying to figure out how to responsibly bring their operations online. In the absence of readily available technical advice, it is completely rational that these organizations responsible for the health, security and well-being of the people they serve will tend toward reactive caution, without a nuanced balancing of the risks and needs of specific situations. The technology that makes sense for a public meeting may not make sense for a closed interview of a witness. Without expert input, however, institutions usually default to a can’t-do, contractor-led status quo of clunky technology that doesn’t work well for government users or constituents.

The tech challenges of the coronavirus emergency illustrate a problem that plays out on a smaller scale every day, as policymakers at all levels lack expert advice on questions about technology — whether it’s the technology they employ for their own operations or making decisions about how technology is regulated in the broader society. Many have advocated over the past several years to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment, which was dismantled in 1995. Our current situation illustrates why that is so important. If OTA existed today, a nonpartisan, expert assessment of the security and privacy tradeoffs for commercial communications technologies would not only serve the purposes of the legislative branch, it would provide an analysis that could inform the decisions of thousands of legislative bodies at every level of government.

With COVID-19, we are re-learning that there is a role for the federal government in providing coordination, expertise and guidance for the myriad issues that states and localities are facing. As the lessons of COVID are counted when we finally come through this emergency, the need for some form of nonpartisan, expert technical assessment at the federal level is one that should not be lost.

Marci Harris is co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, an online platform for legislative information and civic engagement and a former congressional staffer; she serves on the board of the People-Centered Internet and was a co-author of the American Political Science Association’s Technology and Innovation Subcommittee recommendations to the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

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