Posts tagged ‘government’

In Which I Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming to Talk about Immigration Policy

On a recent trip to India for the winter break, I needed to renew my US visa. Like many people working on computer security and other subjects on the “Technology Alert List,” I ended up getting stuck there while my application was sent back to the US Department of State, where they supposedly make sure I’m not conducting espionage.I was lucky—I was “only” delayed by a little over a month. (I’m told that the wait used to be several months, and applicants would often give up.) Nonetheless, it was hugely disrputive: I missed a conference where I was supposed to speak, multiple panels and innumerable meetings.

There are several absurd aspects to the way the State Department and the Consulate process these applications:

  • Processing takes a highly variable amount of time. If it always took a month it wouldn’t be nearly as bad, but since it sometimes takes several months, it wrecks your ability to schedule things.
  • The consulate is highly understaffed. A decision to reject an applicant or stick them in limbo is made based on a 1-2 minute interview.
  • I’ve already been in the country for 6.5 years. Besides, my leaving the country was entirely voluntary, and I’m not required to renew my visa unless I do choose to leave voluntarily. One would think that if I were up to something I would have done it by now, or at least not have left.
  • There is no way to get this time-consuming background check done while I’m still in the country.
  • All of this would be justifiable in some way if the system at least worked. But the determination of whether an applicant working on something sensitive is entirely dependent on what they put on their application; worse, it’s based on keyword matching. It is often possible to reword your application to avoid these keywords if you know how; I wasn’t smart enough to do so.

Immigrants are not the only ones harmed by the muddleheaded visa policy and the fickle behavior of the visa overlords—all Americans are. The H-1B lottery, processing delays and other visa problems contribute to turning skilled workers and scientists back home, which hurts the economy. In fact the US spends taxpayer money to educate Ph.D’s and then encourages or forces them to leave.

As with many problems of Government, a major factor here seems to be that there is a vast and bloated immigration apparatus mired in rules and with no central oversight. Are there things an ordinary person can do to help improve the situation? I’d welcome any thoughts on the issue.

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February 23, 2011 at 4:31 pm 6 comments

An Academic Wanders into Washington D.C.

I was on a Do Not Track panel in Washington D.C. last week. I spent a day in the city and had many informal conversations with policy people. It was fascinating to learn from close range how various parts of the Government work. If I could sum it up in a single phrase, it would be “so many smart people, so many systemic problems.”

What follows is obviously the account of an outsider, and I’m sure there are many nuances I’ve missed. That said, an outsider’s view can sometimes provide fresh perspective. So without further ado, here are some of my observations.

A deep chasm. Techies are by-and-large oblivious of what goes on in D.C., and have a poor mental picture of what regulators are or aren’t involved in. For example, I attended part of a talk on antitrust concerns around the Google search algorithm, and it blew my mind to realize that something that techies think of as their playground comes under serious regulatory scrutiny. (I hear the Google antitrust issue is really big in the EU, and the US is catching up.) Equally, the policy world is quite lacking in tech expertise.

Libertarian influence. While the libertarian party is not mainstream in the US, libertarian think tanks and lobbying groups exercise significant influence in D.C. While that gladdens me as a libertarian, one unfortunate thing that appears to be common to all think tanks is toeing the party line at the expense of critical thinking. I’m not sure there can be a market failure so complete that libertarian groups will consider acknowledging the need for some government intervention.

A new kind of panel. The panel I attended was very different from what I’m used to. In a scientific or technical panel, there is an underlying truth even if the participants may disagree about some things. Policy panels seem to be very different: each participant represents a group that has an entrenched position and there is no scope for actual debate or any possibility of changing one’s mind. The panel is instead a forum for the speakers to state their respective positions for the benefit of the media and the public. There is nothing wrong with this, but it took me a while to grasp.

Lobbyists. The American public is deeply concerned about the power of lobbyists. But lobbyists perform the valuable function of providing domain expertise to legislators and regulators. Of course, the problem is that they also have the role of trying to get favorable treatment for the industry groups they represent, and these roles cannot be disentangled.

The solution is to increase the power of the counterweights to lobbyists, i.e., consumer advocates, environmental groups etc. A loose analogy is that if we’re worried about wealthy individuals getting better treatment from the judicial system, the answer is not to get rid of lawyers, but to improve the quality of public prosecutors and defenders. I don’t know if the lobbyist imbalance can ever be completely eliminated, but I think it can be drastically mitigated.

A humble suggestion. Generalizing my experiences in the tech field, I suspect that the Government lacks domain expertise in virtually every area, hence the dependence on lobbyists. If only more academics were to get involved in policy, it seems to me that it would solve both problems mentioned above — it would address the lack of expertise and it would shift the balance of advocacy in favor of consumers. (There are certainly many law scholars involved in policy, but I’m thinking more of scientists and social scientists here — those who have domain knowledge.)

To reiterate, I believe that a greater involvement of academics in policy has the potential to hugely improve how government works. But how do we make that happen? I have a couple of suggestions. Government people seem to have a tendency to listen to whoever talks the loudest in Washington. Instead, they should make an effort to seek out people with actual expertise. Second, I hope academics will take into account benefits like increased visibility and consider moonlighting in policy circles.

Thanks to Joe Calandrino for comments on a draft.

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December 6, 2010 at 7:38 pm 8 comments


I’m an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

For an explanation of the blog title and more info, see the About page.

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