Before being elected to Congress, Congresswoman Suzan DelBene spent over twenty years as a technology entrepreneur and business leader. In Congress, she’s used this experience to help develop policies that create jobs and foster innovation. She’s also used this background to advance cybersecurity and improve data privacy. Listeners will get to hear how she believes we can secure our networks and protect against online threats as we enter in the next generation of technology.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hello and welcome to Broadband Conversations, the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation and media industries.
You get to hear what they’re working on, what’s on their minds and what they think is the next big thing.
I’m so excited for my guest because she brings a unique voice and perspective to some of the biggest technology policy issues facing us today. She’s a real dynamo with a long history of working in technology.
So joining me today is Congresswoman Suzan DelBene who represents Washington’s 1st congressional district. And before coming to Capitol Hill, she spent more than two decades as a technology entrepreneur and business leader.
Congresswoman DelBene got her start working in biotechnology and then went on to earn an MBA from the University of Washington.
Then she helped start drugstore.com as its Vice President of Marketing and Store Development and later served as CEO and President of Nimble Technology, a business software company that was based on technology developed at the University of Washington.
She also spent 12 years at Microsoft, most recently as Corporate Vice-President of the company’s mobile communications business.
And now she’s brought all of this experience to Capitol Hill and has used it to inform legislative efforts involving how ventures get off the ground, how technology can help create jobs and how innovation can create new security and privacy challenges, but also new opportunities.
Plus on top of that, she serves as Co-chair of the Women’s High-Tech caucus and the Internet of Things caucus.
So, Congresswoman, thank you for being here today.
REP. DELBENE: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now first off, how are you doing right now during these virus days? Tell me, what is life like in your district?
REP. DELBENE: Well, I am doing okay. I am fortunate that myself and my family are safe and healthy, but my district has been hit very hard.
We had the first case of coronavirus in the country, identified case, here in my district and so it has been a long, tough road.
And people are continuing to struggle with ongoing cases and also the economic impact of the crisis so it’s so critical that we all do everything that we can to help our communities right now.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. So I’m going to ask you though to roll back from the current moment and go in the way-back machine and tell us, how did you get to where you are today from Washington State to Washington, D.C.?
REP. DELBENE: Well it’s a great question because I am a very unlikely member of Congress. I never thought I would be a member of Congress.
I was always the math and science kid growing up and studied biology in college. I went to work in biomedical research and I really thought that that was where my focus would be.
I worked in biotech, as you said, and then got my MBA and ended up having the chance to do a summer internship at Microsoft and really got engaged in technology in a different way. And so, I ended up working there and doing a couple of start-ups.
But I grew up in a family that had a lot of financial uncertainty. We moved a lot when I was growing up and I felt very fortunate for the opportunities that I had because of the education I got.
And when I left technology to work in nonprofit, I got involved in policy. And like a good entrepreneur, as I got frustrated with policy, I thought, well I should jump in and help change that and I did something very unexpected and ran for office.
Worked for our state government running the Department of Revenue for Washington State and then ended up winning a congressional race here in the 1st congressional district.
So I always remind people that sometimes you think you know what you’re going to do in your career and then every so often you end up in a different direction, but it’s been great.
And being able to bring a different background to Congress, especially as we have so many issues and policy related to technology and innovation that we have to deal with right now, that’s really important and we could use some more members who have that type of background.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Totally. And also I get your point that, be open to the opportunities that are not part of the master plan. Right? That’s really important.
Now I came to recognize your work because I’ve seen what you’ve done, talking about cyber security and data privacy. And I know that’s been a priority for you in Congress.
So is it your history or are you drawn to these issues? Tell me a little bit more about where you think we need to go in cyber security and data privacy and what you’re doing on those matters right now.
REP. DELBENE: Well, I feel like we’ve been behind when we look at technology and policies related to technology.
You know, we really need to make sure that our laws are updated to reflect the world that we live in today and the economy that we have today.
So much of policy, whether it was tax policy or issues of civil rights, civil liberties, human rights haven’t been updated to deal with a technology world.
And so it’s been very important to me that we focus and make sure we update our policies and make sure that we have civil rights and human rights and civil liberties protected in a digital world.
So one of those obviously is data privacy, control of your information. I mean, people don’t always remember that right now we don’t even have a warrant standard for access to some information.
If you have an email on a server over ninety days, it’s not covered by a warrant anymore. It’s considered abandoned. These are policies that are incredibly out of date, so we need to update that.
We need to put people in charge of their personal information. And with respect to security in terms of the huge footprint that technology has, for all the good that it’s done, we also know that it also becomes a target and a way to target people.
And if we aren’t doing a job of recognizing cyber security issues and highlighting that and creating a framework to make sure that people know if someone’s a responsible vendor, for example, of a product, we’re not going to get to the place that we need to be in terms of making sure that we have a trusted foundation for technology.
So I’ve been working on policy, specifically on data privacy. So we have federal data privacy legislation, making sure that we highlight issues of security but also that we look broadly at issues of technology and update our policies.
And I serve on the Ways and Means Committee. We even have work to do on tax policy to make sure that we address issues of a digital world.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I mean, it affects everything. It’s hard to just put it in some silo and call it technology.
There’s nothing untouched in our economy by digitization and it’s so smart to have people thinking about it on the front end and not after there’s a crisis.
REP. DELBENE: Well and I think we talk about technology as if technology is this one sector, this one contained box.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. Right.
REP. DELBENE: And, really, technology is part of everything now and we need to understand the impacts it has in all of these different areas.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So one area of technology we talk a lot about in my job is 5G, the next generation of wireless technology, what it’s going to look like. And it’s going to be so much more than a mobile device.
We’re talking about sensors and wireless connectivity and so much more in the world around us that will make us more efficient and effective with everything we do.
But let’s be honest, it will also bring new cyber vulnerabilities and so we’ve got to be conscious of those threats. And I’m wondering how the work you do on cyber security you see as related to 5G and the next generation of wireless.
REP. DELBENE: Well definitely there’s the same threats that we have today that we have to be concerned about with respect to 5G because if 5G expands the quantity of data we can move and how quickly we can move it, it also increases the impact that tech could have in terms of the amount of data that might could be collected or the number of people who are impacted.
So from a cyber security perspective, we have to do everything possible to keep up, right?
We talk about updating devices, making sure that as threats are detected that information is out there quickly, that devices and software is updated quickly.
That’s going to be even more critical in a 5G world, especially as you talked about the number of devices that are connected, the Internet of Things.
I think people think about their cell phone or their computer or tablet, but they forget the multitude of devices that are connected and the vulnerabilities that might come with those devices. And we’ve got to make sure that from a cyber security perspective we’re taking that into account.
And the other thing that’s come up with 5G is also the supply chain and making sure that the foundation that we build for 5G is built on technologies and infrastructure that people can trust.
And in the end, this really is about making sure we have a trusted environment and the supply chain is fairly narrow for those foundational products for 5G.
And that’s why folks have heard so much concern about if there’s a kind of hidden threat in terms of access to data in any type of foundational infrastructure, how that would affect an overall network.
So we’ve got to be very diligent about understanding products, checking them out, making sure that there’s a lot of work done beforehand, before things are implemented, so look for those threats.
So it’s a combination and then there’s the day-to-day threats in terms of moving data and new innovative malign actors that are trying to attack and access information.
It’s not a one-time issue, it’s going to be an ongoing issue and an extension also of a lot of things that we’ve already seen happening across our networks today.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Are there areas in data privacy or security where you think we’ve done a good job and we should look to that as a model?
REP. DELBENE: I do think that the kind of frequency in updates right now has been incredibly helpful and the knowledge that people have about how important it is to update.
I mean all of us now on our devices get regular information saying time to update or there’s an important update.
It wasn’t that long ago, especially you know from my perspective at least, that we were waiting and there would be kind of like a regular quarterly roll out of a patch or things like that.
Now, being incredibly up to date is very, very important and I think that’s worked well and helped people respond more quickly.
And sharing of information so that as folks are detecting any type of malign activity out there that they are able to let others know so there can be a unified quick response out there.
And so those are going to be helpful tools going forward.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, absolutely. I mean it’s not just institutional cyber security; it’s our cyber hygiene as individuals --
REP. DELBENE: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- because it has huge impact on everything that’s networked.
It’s -- you’re right, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of updating my device felt like this thing that happened, you know, it was sort of like you pulled out that activity with some frequency, but you weren’t enthusiastic about it. But now I’m accustomed to updates happening overnight all the time.
REP. DELBENE: And knowing that you want to get it updated right away --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right, but it’s a good thing because I’m --
REP. DELBENE: -- because there might be something that --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. Because you’re safer as a result and that I’m -- that’s something that’s in my thoughts right now in a way that hasn’t been previously, so --
REP. DELBENE: But you also brought up --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- that’s important.
REP. DELBENE: -- you also brought up the need for all of us to be smart about our own behaviors because we know a lot of the attacks that have happened out there have been through someone clicking on a link or allowing a virus or other type of vector to enter their device or machine.
So it’s up to all of us because it’s -- each of us has a role to play in terms of making sure that not only our systems are safe, but the systems of the organizations we work with are safe too.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. Small clicks and big consequences is the way I think about it.
REP. DELBENE: Yes, yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now one of the other things I wanted to ask you about was cities because there’s this big movement to make cities across the country smarter.
You know, from autonomous vehicles to adaptive traffic signals to figuring out how to move city and municipal services from folks standing in line to doing things online.
And there’s so much that can be done for the commercial life of our communities and the civic life of our communities with these connections, but they too have to think about cyber security and privacy protections.
So I’m wondering if you have thoughts about cities and municipal actors and how they -- how they wrestle with all of these same issues that we’ve been talking about as commercials -- as a commercial matter.
REP. DELBENE: Well all of these exciting opportunities, I think we’re trying to learn what works and what works where under what criteria.
One of the efforts I’ve been pushing on in Congress is to make sure that we have resources for pilot projects on smart cities and smart communities, that folks can try things.
We know that new technologies are hard for, especially, local government to implement or they might spend a lot of money implementing something that doesn’t end up working.
So we could have some folks try things and establish best practices and share that information and some of that information might be about what didn’t work and the challenges that are in place and help inform others.
So if we’re able to move forward on some of the work that we’re trying to do where we would provide grants at the federal level for local government to do these pilots and share the information back and then share that information broadly, we’d have the opportunity for folks to learn from others what works, what doesn’t work, how to protect information, et cetera, because the opportunities are really quite great.
You know, city governments talk about the resources they want to spend because of the efficiencies that might come.
Moving traffic is one people think about or energy efficiency and city governments are expected to spend about, you know, $41 trillion over the next 20 years on smart technologies to upgrade infrastructure, including all of these sensors, what we talk about as the Internet of Things.
And so, if we’re going to make those investments, we’ve got to make sure things work and that all of our constituents get the return on those investments that we expect, which really means doing the due diligence of understanding the scenarios of things working, where they don’t work, how we make sure that information’s protected.
And so, you know, it’s not unusual for a city to have an IT department now. We used to talk about technology as being a nice to have. This is really a must have and having that capability is extremely important.
So we should do all we can to make sure that we’re sharing information. And just because a technology ends at the border of a city because that’s what the city’s implemented, a lot of the technology we talk about, especially when we talk about things like autonomous vehicles, those technologies need to work beyond the boundaries of any particular municipality or state.
And so there’s got to be a lot of coordination and standards to make sure that things are interoperable and are working well for some of these scenarios to play out.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. They’re incredible laboratories and I also like -- one thing about cities is they copy and learn from one another so we can rapidly experiment the more that we have kind of pilot projects and sand boxes in our cities.
REP. DELBENE: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So of course, cities are also wrestling right now, like everywhere in this country, with this health care crisis.
And as you know, more of us are online than ever as a nation. We are learning online, we are working online, we’re visiting with our doctors online, we are connecting with family and friends online.
And all of that online activity means there’s a lot of data out there about where we go and what we’re doing. And protecting this, I know, is a concern for you.
So in this environment where we are living life online every day in ways that we have not previously, tell me what we should be mindful of when it comes to data privacy.
REP. DELBENE: Well first of all, we should be in control of our personal information. We should know when we are signing up for a service or participating using a product or an app on your phone, that you understand what’s going to happen to any data, what data is being collected and what might happen with that data.
I introduced legislation, the Information Transparency & Personal Data Control Act, because I believe that people should be in charge of their most personal information and really what this will require, it’s federal legislation so that people would have to opt in. Basically, give your consent to a service, for them to collect information they would have to be able to tell you what information they’re going to collect, how it’s going to be used.
It would have -- those policies would be described in what we call plain English, right, something that’s not just legalese where a lot of people click accept right now. And basically --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my gosh, so fast. You look at, despite what I do professionally, you look at all of that small text and you just want to click that box for free shipping without regard to what data commitments you made just to save a few dollars.
REP. DELBENE: Or you click the box because you don’t want to take the time and you know that the service is important or other people have used it, but you don’t know what might be happening to your information so we need clarity and transparency.
We also need enforcement because there’s really not clarity of who’s going to enforce data privacy legislation. We talk about the Federal Trade Commission as being the place that would provide that enforcement as well as states’ attorneys general who could also provide enforcement capability.
It’s going to be very clear that if we really want to change behavior, we have to have enforcement.
I also think it’s important we think about this as an international issue. The EU has already put data privacy regulations in place, what’s called GDPR.
We don’t have a domestic policy in the United States, so if we’re going to help set international standards in these areas, we need to have a domestic policy.
So really the fundamental part is making sure that people have the information, the transparency and clarity about what would happen to their information, making sure that they’re able to give consent for that information and then making sure we have a way to enforce that behavior and audit that behavior.
We think about this in other areas, but we really haven’t been good on the technology side on really making sure that we have that clarity.
And again, people now have seen -- I think everybody has probably had their data compromised in some way. People now see that that’s possible, so we’ve got to give them clarity so they’re making decisions about the types of services that they use.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And that plain language is so important. We don’t always talk about that with privacy, but it’s not really consent if you just have a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo.
And I, you know, I don’t think you need to be, you shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to understand what they’re doing with your information and you shouldn’t have to be a network engineer to know what they’re doing with your data.
So thank you for the effort to put it in plain language. I think that’s meaningful for all of us.
REP. DELBENE: We also need, if we look even now, what we’re going through with things like contact tracing and data collection, there could be a very good cause where information’s being collected.
But people should know what information is being collected, how would it be stored, for how long, is it going to be identified with me, is it, you know, information that will be anonymous and part of an aggregate?
These are all important questions and I think the public now is starting to ask these questions. But we want to make sure that that information is available, that it’s required to be available so that we can -- so that there can be trust again for folks who are using different types of technologies.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. So something else I know that you do is you are Co-chair of the Congressional App Challenge.
So that involves middle and high school students, coding, getting young people interested in computer science.
And so tell me some more about that because I’m curious what that’s about and how that goes.
REP. DELBENE: So for a long time, there’s been a Congressional Art Challenge where high school students across the country would submit works of art and each congressional district would pick a winner and that art work is displayed in the Cannon Tunnel, for those of you who know the complex, but there’s a tunnel between the House Office Building and the Capitol where there’s representation from each district across the country from students and their art.
And so we kind of picked up on that idea and said what can we do to help engage students and get them excited about technology and coding and ended up creating the Congressional App Challenge.
And so now, and we’re slowing getting more and more offices to participate in this every year, more and more House offices. We let students know that they can participate.
They submit an application to our office to, you know, their member of Congress’s office and then we have judges who come in and select a winner. And now we have a big screen up, not far from where the art -- all the artwork is displayed, that talks about the different applications students have made.
So this has been a great effort. We have a chance for students to come together and write apps together. We have a big weekend where everyone comes together to maybe share ideas, maybe find teammates to help work with on an application.
And we’ve had folks start from, you know, scratch not knowing how to code at all and trying to learn to working with others, and all sorts of incredible ideas. So it’s been a great effort and we hope to continue to see it grow.
We had a huge turnout when we were able to bring students to the Capitol. The winners would have the chance to come out. We had a huge auditorium filled with students and their families showing off their work so as we work to continue to increase those STEM and STEAM skills in our students, this has been a great effort and I’ve been happy to be a part of it.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So I have to ask, from winners or participants in the past, do you have any favorites that you want to share or do you, do you appropriately love every entrant equally?
REP. DELBENE: Well let me talk about that in the most recent winner that we had was a winning application called Driver Vision. And what -- two brothers, Sohil Bhatia and Sayan Bhatia who go to Redmond High School here in my district.
They wanted to build an app to deal with distracted driving and so they used machine learning models and cameras to try to detect if you were being a distracted driver and then to like make a noise so that you would know to pay attention.
So it is really interesting in terms of the different pieces that they could bring together to try to build such an application.
We’ve had folks look at, trying to look at nutritional information, we had someone write an app about pollination and bees, we’ve had different types of games that people put together.
So just the different ideas that people have put forward, whether they’re the ultimate winner or not, it’s been just great to see the creativity and all of the ideas that students have had and to see them also get engaged in coding.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah, that sounds very, very neat though. All right, so I have just a few more questions that I ask all of my guests before they go.
And now I want you to think back what is probably for you many, many years ago and say what was the first thing you remember doing online or with the Internet?
REP. DELBENE: This is a hard question for me. I was working at Microsoft during this time and so there was not one moment, I think, -- I worked in email, the early days of email.
And I think, really when I think about that moment it was going from just being able to send email to people in my organization, right, to be able to start, expand outside.
We worked on products we called gateways which allowed different types of mail systems to talk to each other. You take this for granted now that you can send an email from one person and it will get to the other person. You take for granted that a file attachment you put in might be able to be opened on the other end.
These were not things taken for granted, but that connectivity -- being able to go from your kind of internal walls and start connecting with others was probably really that first big break through. But it --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes.
REP. DELBENE: -- wasn’t necessarily what you think of as the Internet because I think a lot of people think of the Internet even though technically it’s that backbone, a lot of people think of it as the first time they could see a website or a page.
And I got to work early on, on browsers in the early days of browsers so got to see that whole part develop, too. So it was an incredibly exciting time and just the rapid change that happened and the rapid innovation was incredibly exciting.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well, that’s revolutionary stuff. Now I’m going to ask you something totally mundane. What’s the last thing you did online or with the Internet?
REP. DELBENE: Probably the last thing was check news.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Of course.
REP. DELBENE: We have negotiations --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Of course.
REP. DELBENE: -- happening in Congress right now and looking for information so that’s -- I’m definitely online quite a bit looking for updates so definitely that was probably the thing I did before we had a chance to talk.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That makes sense. So last question. What do you -- what would you like the future of the Internet and digital life to look like?
REP. DELBENE: Well I think we talked about trust and so I think making sure we have an environment where folks feel like the appropriate policies and work is happening to make sure that information is protected.
I think we have incredible opportunities with telemedicine. Actually, the pandemic has accelerated some use of telemedicine, but I think that we’re going to see further breakthroughs there in terms of how that’s used to help people all over, not only access services that would have been hard to get to in the past, but also more quickly access those services and make sure that we’re doing a better job of keeping people’s health up to date.
We’re going to see more changes in our everyday lives. I think people are used to this and forget the changes we’ve seen in terms of being able to have -- see who’s at your door or have some type of voice response system in your house.
But we’re going to see that as we talk about the Internet of Things, the ability to see technologies to automate things in many ways. I don’t think you could probably buy an appliance these days that doesn’t have some type of Internet connectivity and those types of things will continue.
And then how we buy things, commerce, definitely in the pandemic we’ve seen that too in terms of people trying to keep distance, getting information or even their food so -- but it’s changed the way we work.
Now everyone is online doing video conferences and spending their days there. And there’s going to be a long-term change, I think, that comes from that in terms of how we use technology to communicate to work.
So, but in the end, we have to make sure that we have strong foundational policies in place and I think one of the places that starts is with privacy.
If we don’t have privacy, we’re not really going to be thoughtful about what we do to put appropriate policies in place for facial recognition or artificial intelligence.
So if we really want to see that full potential, we’ve got to start and make sure we have good policies in place on privacy.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. Like you said, trust is foundational. That’s really what it’s all about.
So before we go, where can folks follow you online to keep up to date with the good work you’re doing?
REP. DELBENE: Well I am all over. Rep. DelBene is my twitter. You can find me also up on Facebook and Instagram and other places and clearly the website, my House website, DelBene.house.gov where we have a lot of information for folks. So all of those are places you can, you can find me.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Terrific. So that wraps up this episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you for being here, Congresswoman, and thank you for the work you do and thanks to everyone for listening. Take care.