For over a year, the FCC has been silent about its investigation into the sale of geolocation data from wireless phones, affecting the privacy of anyone with a smartphone. On this episode listeners will hear not only how Congresswoman Lori Trahan and Commissioner Rosenworcel worked together to address this issue, but they will also hear how Rep. Trahan worked her way up from college volleyball player to CEO to Congresswoman.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations. My name is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I'm a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission.
And this is the podcast, where I get to talk to women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. And you get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.
And, today, my guest is Massachusetts Representative Lori Trahan. And, like all of us, she's had a lot of titles. She's a business leader, a former Capitol Hill Chief of Staff, a mom, and, now, we call her Congresswoman.
And I'm really excited to have another New England native joining me, as I'm from a neighboring state in Connecticut. I'm looking forward to her talking some more about how she got to where she is and a little bit about technology in the work she does today.
So with that, let's start off, by talking some more, about how you got to where you are today.
MS. TRAHAN: Well, I will say that, you know, this isn't, this isn't my first time in Washington. I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts. I was public school kid. You know, my Dad was a Union Iron Worker.
I went, you know, I went to my local high school, and then I got a scholarship to play volleyball, at, at Georgetown. And that informed so much of what I do, down here, because it's changed the trajectory of my life, certainly, being able to go to college.
And, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. After that, I came to the Hill. I started, as a scheduler and worked my way up to Chief of Staff.
But then, if you could imagine, it was getting a little too partisan, it sounds quaint to say it, now, but I actually switched careers, after, you know, almost ten years on the, on the Hill and in Massachusetts's politics, I jumped over to technology.
I joined a start up, then in Cambridge, you know, right in Kendall Square, I was doing a little bit of everything. First, as the Chief of Staff to the CEO, and then I became the Chief Revenue Officer, there.
And then I started my own business, with two other women, from Harvard Business School. We were working with companies, you know, on their growth strategies and, and some of their workforce issues.
We're trying to get more women into board rooms, because, as, as you know, in tech, there is a shortage of women in leadership. So it's, it was an exciting, sort of, journey.
But, what brought me here, you know, was this need to see more women walking the halls of Congress. You know, over the course of my adult life, there's still only, there was still only 19 percent women in Congress.
And, you know, after the 2016 election, it, it caused me to, kind of, look and take note. And, and then, my local Congresswoman announced her retirement, and I was all in.
I, you know, lived in the district that I'm now representing, my whole life, and it, it felt like a, a it was a moment of clarity, for me.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh that's fantastic. I love that it started with volleyball, too.
MS. TRAHAN: Yes. Well, there aren't too many people. I mean, you know, most folks, when they see me and they take note of my height, they say, oh basketball, and I'm happy to correct them and say volleyball.
Because, you know, as someone on the East Coast, you know, sometimes, it's, you know, it's considered a western sport, but we have some, we have some great programs out here.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes and it for and it brought you to Washington, and here you are, again. So
MS. TRAHAN: Yes. Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: in your new role
MS. TRAHAN: Thank you.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: as Congresswoman, tell me, how that background in technology helps you understand what are some of the most pressing public policy issues facing us, today, because technology is everything, right now, in discussion
MS. TRAHAN: Yes, well
MS. ROSENWORCEL: on Capitol Hill and
MS. TRAHAN: you know, I
MS. ROSENWORCEL: you have a background.
MS. TRAHAN: Yes, I get to draw on two backgrounds, actually. You know, one, my, my time, as a Staffer, certainly helped, you know, because you realize how important the committee process is.
You spend so much time in committees, so you really want to land on the right ones. For me that was armed services and education labor.
But then, you also have an understanding that, look, this place is a constrained optimization, right? There are constraints here that you can't move.
Unlike, when you work in tech, sometimes, you can be very disruptive and, you know, you can change those constraints. But, here, it's, you know, there's, there's been some things in play for hundreds of years and
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.
MS. TRAHAN: you have to know how to still be effective, even working within some of those constraints.
But, I'll tell you, with technology, it's, I'm glad I have the background of knowing how much it can enable progress, in the future, while also having, like, a thoughtfulness around, you know, privacy concerns, or, you know, job displacement, things like that.
Because, I just approach some of those issues, with a, well, you know, with understanding, like, what personally identifiable information it is, where, you know, that, where that rub, or where that tension is.
Do I wish, sometimes, that it operated more like a tech start up? I mean, this notion of piloting something, maybe, testing, grabbing the evidence, iterating on it, making it better, that whole process, I really do miss.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.
MS. TRAHAN: Because that, it's not something that you get to do here.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That is so true. There's so much risk aversion at doing something nationally, at that scale. And there's less interest in trying to sandbox a problem and learn in an iterative fashion.
MS. TRAHAN: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And policymaking would benefit from, perhaps, doing a little more test case like that, especially, when you think about how much technology is challenging some of the laws that exists on the books, today?
MS. TRAHAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, the sometimes, you, you can do that, maybe, in your own district. Like, you can pull a few partners together, whether it's a local community college, a, a company that wants, you know, a more diverse workforce.
And, and, you know, maybe, you can get them to pilot it and hope that, you know, with success, you can make that contagious, as far as funding it, at a, at, at scale.
But it's not, you know, there aren't a lot of, you know, opportunity to do that, from a legislative, or policy, perspective, you know, here.
So it's and here, when I say, here, I mean in Washington. So it's yes, it's building that muscle, though, I think, is as, you know, we've seen a lot of new, you know, freshmen come into this class, diverse backgrounds, you know, maybe, maybe, we can build that muscle, together.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. I think there's something to that model. I, I think we're going to be counting on you.
MS. TRAHAN: Thanks.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Another thing you just mentioned, when we were just talking, a moment ago, was about women in leadership and, you know, I've heard from a lot of women entrepreneurs that, getting an idea off the ground can be really hard.
But it's even harder, when women are trying to start a business, because there's this challenge of getting access to capital. And I know that you advised a lot of companies and tech companies on best practices, in this regard.
And I'd love to know what advice you have, when you have a great idea, you're contemplating a start up, or a business that might involve technology, what is it you learn from your own experience?
MS. TRAHAN: You know, you have to remind yourself, while you're doing it. I mean, if there really is something to launching your own business, right, and taking an idea to, you know, something successful that, you know, people will buy in the marketplace.
But then, also, personally, as a working mom, I mean, I, it, it also brought all the promise of autonomy and, you know, flexibility down, you know, the road, right, sort of, controlling your own fate.
So it's so worthy to, sort of, really bet on yourself and, and to get off the sidelines, if you've got a, a great idea. You're right to point out I mean, look, access for, access to capital is, still, such a steep climb.
Even, even though, there are, you know, more organizations out there, today, that are helping more women, in this space, you know, whether they're investors, or funds that will only invest in women owned businesses.
And I was just with Desh Deshpande, who started EforAll, Entrepreneurship for All. And, and they, they've cropped up all around the country, trying to make entrepreneurship more accessible to people in, you know, lower income communities and, and start small businesses.
And so the investments are smaller there, but they don't need to be as, as big, because the start up costs aren't as big, and so and really, you know, I went to a high school.
I went to Lowell High School. It's like a, a gritty working class city and, you know, entrepreneurship wasn't something that was discussed, right, I mean, it wasn't
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.
MS. TRAHAN: So people in my community were, were, we lived in a culture of starting your own, your own business. And so I think, you know, bringing that into, like, K through 12 programs, so people, kind of, develop the skills and the tools.
Or the, or even the thinking around that, as an option, or a career path, and, and trying to surround our, our young people with those resources, would go a long way.
Because, it shouldn't just be something that, you know, a few have access to, which is how, you know, which is how it's been, for decades.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. Right. And it'll be neat to see what you can do with that, in your own district. Because, it would be good to see ideas coming from so many more places and influencing our business and civic culture, including
MS. TRAHAN: Absolutely. And then, I
MS. ROSENWORCEL: the Third District.
MS. TRAHAN: I look at the Education and Labor Committee, as place to really have some of those discussions. I mean, I've got 5 and 9 year old daughters.
My, my 9 year old, you know, she's in the STEM fair every year and she really likes science and, I and that's great, because it shows that we've, now, you know, put a focus on bringing STEM and STEAM into our classrooms, at young, young ages.
But, even she, probably, doesn't understand that we could do a better job making the connections of, well, why science and technology, like, why, what, what does it lead to?
Well that's, that's your Wishbone App, or that's, you know, that's all the things that you enjoy, on your screen, is, you know, a potential job opportunity, or entrepreneurship opportunity.
So I do think we could do a better job, in our educational system, of making those links, so that people could really buy into those fields.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That makes a lot of sense. So switching gears, another issue that you and I have worked on together, involves privacy and consumer's geo location data.
So let me just quickly break that down. All of us have mobile devices. I mean, they're with us. They're in our palms, they're in our pockets, they're in our purses, they are with us, at all times.
And there's so much power we get from that, but when they're there, they're constantly pinging a cell tower. They are learning information about where we are, at any given moment, and that powers them, it makes them work.
But, one of the things that we learned, here, at the FCC, was a kind of shady black market had developed for that geo location data, from all of our devices.
And, I found that disturbing. I know you did, too. Because, you know, that has real impact for our national and personal security. So I've put pressure on the Agency, my colleagues, to do more to investigate what's going on.
And, I know, you've done some work on Capitol Hill with that, too, so I'd love it, if you could describe to me, why this issue interested you and, also, what do you think we can do about it, next?
MS. TRAHAN: So I'm so glad you brought it up. And, Jessica, I just want to thank you, for your leadership and, and frankly, your partnership.
Because, there was something that we could do, legislatively. I was able to pass an Amendment in the Fiscal Year '20's Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill that we passed, in June.
And it was to compel the FCC to provide an update into the results from its investigation into the sale of geo location data. So as you mentioned, it, it's been over a year, since Congress requested that the FCC undertake this work, so that it, so that we could better assess the, the policy prescriptions to safeguard American consumers.
But it was, it was mind blowing, it, to, to, well, you know, to hear that, for just for a few dollars, you know, stalkers, predatory abusers, could buy this information and, and, basically, enable them to prey on victims.
So that was just a shocking reality that, not just, it didn't just set off alarm bells with us, in our office, but should do that nationwide. And so Congress will be in a position, once we have the data, to remedy this situation.
So I think passing this was a great first step, in terms of, you know, getting the results of the, of the reporting and the findings of the FCC, so that, you know, we can then legislate and make sure that consumers' personal security isn't, isn't at risk.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I mean, there's so much to talk about, when it comes to legislation for privacy.
MS. TRAHAN: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: But geo location, to me, is really important.
MS. TRAHAN: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Because, try to imagine, crime, domestic abuse, espionage, all of these things, could be really, really problematic, if this kind of market is allowed to continue to develop.
And so I'm so grateful that you've taken an interest in this issue and that you're putting pressure on this Agency, to be up front and find out what's going on, so thank you, very much.
MS. TRAHAN: Well, I'm fortunate to have you, as an ally, in the fight, so thank you.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Mutual affection society, right here, right now. And, I'm I do know that this is something that we'll keep working on.
MS. TRAHAN: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know it's important to every one of us, who relies on these devices. So usually, I like to close this out, by asking a few questions, at the end, a quick take on how you use the Internet. And
MS. TRAHAN: Oh boy.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. The first one is
MS. TRAHAN: I don't have to divulge my search history, do I?
MS. ROSENWORCEL: No, no, no, no. We're not going to tell anyone about your cookies, or anything like that. The
MS. ROSENWORCEL: The first thing you did on the Internet, so way back machine, what was?
MS. TRAHAN: The first thing I did on the Internet?
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes.
MS. TRAHAN: Oh that's I'm, you know, it had to have been email, because I graduated from Georgetown in '95 and I left with an email address, and it was the first one I ever had, so yes, it must have been, it must have been email.
But, yes, it's funny, so when I worked at the start up, my, my former boss, he, he came up with the technology to, the data compression technology, to open up pictures on the Internet, and I think that's, like, roughly, the same time.
So I, I certainly wasn't shopping on the Internet any time, any time around then, so it's hard to, it's hard to buy things without actually seeing images. So yes, it must have been email.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Ah, okay. So now, really mundane, what was the last thing you did online, or on the Internet?
MS. TRAHAN: Oh, I'm sure I posted yes, I'm sure it was a tweet.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, I know, I a lot of duties for social media, for Members of Congress and a lot of other people, these days. So that's
MS. TRAHAN: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: probably
MS. TRAHAN: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: a new thing, in your professional life, I imagine. So now, now, and now, we're going to go deep, or deep'ish.
MS. TRAHAN: Okay.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: What do you think the future of the Internet and the whole world we have that's digital and online, what do you think it should look like?
MS. TRAHAN: You know, it's unbelievable to think about that question. I mean, it's, you know, I'm not great at predicting the future.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well, usually, people
MS. TRAHAN: But
MS. ROSENWORCEL: who say they are, are not, in the rearview mirror, so just go ahead, anyway.
MS. TRAHAN: But, you know, it's funny, like, my, my 5 year old started Kindergarten in, in, the, you know, in September and, you know, I was home for it. We were on a district work period, and she stuck her Alexa in her backpack.
And I looked at Caroline, I'm like, Caroline, what are you doing, I'm like you can't, you can't, she's like, well what if I need to call you, from school?
And I just thought to myself, you know, there is, there is so many instances, where online is like integrating into our offline lives.
I mean, now, we like yell into the air and, you know, we can have shipments at our door, or you can like, she calls me all the time, from her Alexa device.
And, when I think about, like, wearable technology I mean, I just think it's going to be, it's going to go across the convenience, you know, spectrum of, how can we just say what we want and it will, you know, be there, in lightning speed. And I think digital has this unbelievable capability of enabling that.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. No that makes sense, I think, in many respects. We're at the end of the Smart phone revolution, where it's focused on that and we're going to have connectivity built into the world around us.
MS. TRAHAN: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And what you're talking about is really about that next generation of technology that's going to feature that kind of connectivity, everywhere.
MS. TRAHAN: Right. Right.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Lots of challenges, lots of opportunities with that.
MS. TRAHAN: Yes, exactly. We'll be, we'll become we'll be making sure that privacy is protected all of it, Jessica.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know, we are, we are counting on you to legislate and get this right, you know, it's the future. For your kids and mine.
All right, so you mentioned social media, before, so tell me, where people can follow up, to date, with the good work you're doing in Congress.
MS. TRAHAN: Oh, well thank you. I, so I'm at @RepLoriTrahan. That's my handle on Twitter, on Instagram, and Facebook, you know, my, my Website is Trahan.House.gov.
And, yes, if folks want to sign up and get occasional email updates, we will promise not to flood your inbox, but that's a, that's always a good way to, kind of, keep up to, keep up to date, with the work we're doing.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well, thank you, Congresswoman. I'm so glad you agreed to join us, today, and I'm so glad you're doing the work you're doing, on Capitol Hill.
MS. TRAHAN: Oh, thanks so much, Jessica. I look forward to seeing you, soon.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Thank you.