The State of the Union's IT issues

President Obama discusses high-tech job training during his 2015 State of the Union address.

President Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union address touched on cybersecurity, training more coders and protecting privacy online.

Technology typically takes a back seat in the annual State of the Union message, with presidents focusing on the economy and national security. But for the 2015 address, the first of his tenure before a fully Republican-controlled Congress, President Barack Obama early on signaled his intention to include a range of technology issues, including efforts to advance long-stalled legislation in cybersecurity and data-breach reporting.

And while jobs and troops once again took their usual top billing, the president did indeed turn to technology late in his speech.

"No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids," Obama said, prompting one of the night's few bipartisan standing ovations. "I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children's information. If we don't act, we'll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable."

And while Obama's proposed tax hike on the highest earners and calls to subsidize community college for lower-income Americans likely won't get serious consideration in Congress, there appears to be common ground for some of these tech proposals to become law.

Behind the sound bites

Here's where things stand for the IT proposals Obama sketched out during the speech or previewed in the days leading up to it:

Broadband: Universal access to high-speed Internet and faster broadband speeds have been part of the Obama tech agenda since he took office in 2009. Now the president is looking to move the needle on broadband speeds nationwide, by targeting restrictions that exist in many states and municipalities that restrict local governments from acting as Internet service providers.

On a recent visit to Cedar Falls, Iowa, Obama touted the promise of such "municipal broadband" offerings saying, "high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it's a necessity" -- for education, job seeking and business. He plans to call on the Federal Communications Commission to use its authority to regulate telecommunications competition to overrule 19 state laws restricting the entry of cities and towns into the ISP business. The plan is strongly opposed by leading commercial Internet providers, and Republicans in Congress are leery of what they see as a potential power grab by the FCC. The administration appears to be banking on the unpopularity of ISPs, particularly those selling connectivity over cable TV lines, with the general public.

Cybersecurity: The destructive cyberattack on Sony has galvanized attention on computer network protection, and showed how vulnerable even well funded firms are against determined adversaries. The Obama administration has decided that the time is ripe to revisit cybersecurity legislation that includes provisions for companies to share information on data breaches with the government under conditions that include certain liability protections. This approach to cybersecurity has failed before, under the Cyber Intelligence and Sharing Protection Act of 2012, which drew widespread and determined opposition from Internet activists and was ultimately scrapped.

Obama is proposing a modified version of the legislation that will include safeguards on the type of information that companies will share with the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center at the Department of Homeland Security, and on how attack information will be retained. While such a cyber bill has long proved elusive under a divided Congress, the path may now be smoothed by the GOP's control of both the House and the Senate. Any effort to legislate information-sharing, however, will likely face obstacles from civil liberties and privacy advocates worried about how data collected on cyberattacks is shared between civilian law enforcement agencies and military cyber defenders.

Data breach reporting: There has been solid bipartisan support in Congress for a bill to create a national standard for reporting data breaches to consumers, especially in the wake of front-page news about hacks that compromised customer data at Target, Home Depot and Staples. Currently, companies must navigate a patchwork of state laws governing the loss or theft of personal data. Obama backs a new standard requiring companies to notify consumers within 30 days of a breach, and the administration is seeking new authority to prosecute those who sell illegally obtained personal data on Americans. While these proposals by themselves are not controversial, support from Republicans will hinge on liability provisions in the legislation.

Surveillance reform: Data collection on Americans by spy agencies is proving to be the flip side of cybersecurity. In his 2014 State of the Union, Obama promised to reform some of the National Security Agency surveillance practices that were criticized in an administrative review, saying, "the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated." In this year's speech, he declared that "our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse. And next month, we'll issue a report on how we're keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy."

An effort at bipartisan reform of the Patriot Act to alter the practice of bulk collection of U.S. phone records passed the Republican House in 2014, but was blocked in the Senate. Since then, the Paris attacks, the Sony hack, and the surge of online terror videos from the Islamic State may have diminished the public appetite for surveillance reform. Additionally, a report from the National Research Council commissioned by the nation's top spymaster concluded that "no software technique ... will fully substitute for bulk collection where it is relied on to answer queries about the past after new targets become known." In other words, if you are looking for needles in haystacks, it makes sense to keep the haystacks handy.

Still, not quite center stage

As another sign of tech's importance, the administration also included Kathy Pham of the U.S. Digital Services among the special guests in First Lady Michelle Obama's seating box, high above the House floor. Pham has worked at Google and IBM, but also has the kind of appealing personal story that makes for good State of the Union theater. Her parents are immigrants, and her brother served in Afghanistan, where he earned a Purple Heart.

But even for a president who name-checks Instagram in his speech, there are limits to how much limelight gets devoted to IT. While the White House, in announcing the list of special guests, praised Pham for "applying the cutting-edge skills she honed in the private sector to improve health IT for more Americans, expand veterans' access to benefits, and transform the way government provides services to families like hers," she did not get a mention from Obama during the address.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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