Hold your friends close, and your enemies closer.
That might be the thinking behind the White House’s appointment today of Ed Felten, a Princeton computer science professor, as its deputy U.S. chief technology officer.
“Ed joins a growing number of techies at the White House working to further President Obama’s vision to ensure policy decisions are informed by our best understanding of state-of-the-art technology and innovation, to quickly and efficiently deliver great services for the American people, and to broaden and deepen the American people’s engagement with their government,” the White House announcement noted.
At first glance, Felten seems like an unusually anti-establishment choice. Felten, while a widely respected researcher, has a long track record as a critic of copy protection, government spying, and electronic voting machines.
In 2001, he was involved in a lawsuit against the Recording Industry Association of America, which had sought to block him and several students from publishing the results of their research into weaknesses in a music copy-protection scheme that the music industry was exploring.
In 2006, Felten published a video showing how easy it is to hack into widely used Diebold voting machines, potentially changing the results of elections.
And in recent years, Felten has been criticizing the administration’s efforts to continue mass surveillance of U.S.-based telephone calls and to make sure that encryption technologies include “back doors” so the National Security Agency can get in.
Still, he’s not a total outsider. Felten earlier served as the first Chief Technologist at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, and worked with the U.S. Department of Justice in its Antitrust Division. He has also published more than 100 academic papers, the announcement says.
Having an extremely well-credentialed critic like this on staff suggests that the administration is serious about incorporating knowledge — if not outright dissent — into its internal discussions on technology policy.
As deputy, Felten will report to former Google exec Megan Smith, the recently named White House CTO.