Barack Obama is No Longer the Tech President
San Franciscans turned out, last night, for President Obama’s arrival by the Bay. After Air Force One touched down at S.F.O., the presidential motorcade made its way up Nob Hill, and crowds five-people deep did their best to peer through the bulletproof glass. But Friday, Obama is due in Silicon Valley for a cybersecurity summit on the Stanford campus, and some notable names won't be there. Many technology bigwigs are set to attend, including Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook, but the top executives at Google, Yahoo, and Facebook—Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt—all declined the invitation. Bloomberg’s Chris Strohm reports that Yahoo, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have elected to send their top information security executives instead. That’s telling. Things have changed since Zuckerberg, in shirtsleeves, handed the president a Facebook hoodie at his company's headquarters. Obama has lost a bit of his tech mojo.
Trust between tech and government has wobbled since information leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden pulled back the government's spying on technology companies and users. The agency, Snowden showed, has broken and finagled its way into iPhones, Google servers, and computer systems overseas. Meanwhile, sensational hacks like those at Sony, JPMorgan Chase, and Anthem create a pervasive atmosphere of anxiety.
The significance of this summit is that the tech industry both needs the government, and distrusts it. One way the industry is trying to reassure its customers is with heightened encryption that would take experts years to crack into. But that priority—encryption—hasn’t even made it onto the official White House summit agenda, which focuses instead on fighting hackers. The FBI, government intelligence agencies, and even British Prime Minister David Cameron are pushing against encryption so powerful that even the companies cannot break in. By sending top information security executives, Yahoo, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are, in their way, pushing back—putting the emphasis on keeping intrusion out, and keeping information private.
These sorts of issues—understanding technology, drawing the right lines between security and transparency—are liable to play a large role in 2016. The first loser in the tech primary is Jeb Bush, the current presidential frontrunner in the Republican camp, who, casting himself as an early adopter of email, decided to post online the 332,999 personal emails he sent in eight years as Florida governor. Unfortunately, his team had failed to redact the social security numbers and identity details of 12,000 people. Simultaneously, his just-hired youthful chief technology officer was pushed out after he'd been found to have made racist and sexist remarks online—and predicted several years ago that Twitter was a passing fad.
Todd Feinman, who runs the data security firm that audited the database, called Bush's email mistake “obviously very innocent.” But, designed to make him look like he was ahead of the curve, Bush's technological sallies instead made him look like a creature of the 1990s—not exactly the message he's going for.
The schism between those who get tech and those who don't is a crucial 2016 wedge, as it was, in several ways, for Obama in 2008. In his two presidential campaigns, the president not only raised significant amounts of cash from tech pockets—donations from employees and executives both—he hired their people. The data tricks catapulted him; history textbooks will laud the combination of get-out-the-vote ground tactics with fine-tuned analysis. But now Obama's approach already feels dated. And it's hard to imagine how Hillary can pick up that torch.