June 12, 2012, 3:48 PM — Renowned security expert and hacker Edward Felten's time as the first chief technologist of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has been "highly educational," he said at a USENIX conference keynote address in Boston Tuesday, urging fellow computer scientists to follow in his footsteps.
Technologists should seek out government posts because it gives them the opportunity to affect public policy, which often affects their jobs, Felten said.
Even if technologists don't attain positions of direct authority, their increased presence will incur a rise in "soft power," or influence for their points of view, according to Felten. People in other disciplines, such as economists, have been successful in gaining great prominence within government circles, Felten said. "They didn't do that overnight."
However, it's important to have realistic expectations, Felten said. "I am trying to move a very heavy weight, so I should only expect to move it a short distance," he said by way of analogy. "Even if you make an iota of difference, you've done a lot of good in the aggregate."
Felten is on leave from Princeton University, where he teaches computer science, and is known for his involvement in many high-profile security- and software-related matters, including the successful hacking of a voting machine in 2006.
The FTC is a policy-making agency with two main missions, namely consumer protection and antitrust law as well as a civil law enforcement agency, Felten said.
Felten's role there is not an operational one, he said. "I'm not the person whose phone buzzes when the network goes down." Instead, he serves as a senior policy adviser to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz "on all matters related to technology" and acts as a "technology ambassador to the world," he said.
Felten's talk was short on anecdotes or specific incidents from his tenure so far at the FTC. But he's set to leave the post later this year to return to Princeton, and hinted Tuesday that he'd be more forthcoming once that happens.
Instead, Felten offered a series of general guidelines on how technologists can successfully interact with government officials, who tend to fall somewhere along a "cluelessness scale," as he put it.
At level zero are people who are not experts, "but know how to find and work with experts," he said. "It's really kind of the desired state for someone who's a general-purpose decision maker. The art of being a good decision maker is not to be an expert at every level, it's the ability to function well."