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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

A federal privacy watchdog is poised to come back from the dead

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Tuesday! Who knew coffee table books could be so revealing.

Below: President Biden's top scientist resigns, and the IRS abandons its facial recognition plans. On a related note:

A federal privacy watchdog is poised to come back from the dead

A little-known agency tasked with ensuring the federal government’s counterterrorism efforts don’t trample on privacy and civil liberties has long been hobbled by vacancies that rendered it at times ineffective. Now, it’s poised for a revival. 

On Monday, the Senate confirmed by voice vote the nominations of two new members for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), which was created by Congress in 2004 in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“These two nominees reflect not only that bipartisan structure but our bipartisan commitment to ensure that we protect the nation’s security and remain vigilant to America’s civil liberties,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said during a markup last week of PCLOB nominees Sharon Bradford Franklin and Beth Ann Williams.

The reemergence of PCLOB as a fully functioning agency could bring fresh oversight to the federal government’s deployment of technologies like facial recognition and techniques like social media monitoring — the kind of scrutiny advocates have been clamoring for.

The five-member independent watchdog agency has operated on-and-off without a full complement of members or a chairperson since 2017. That has hampered PCLOB’s ability to advise other federal agencies and inspect how their initiatives are taking privacy and civil liberties concerns into account. 

“It really stifles their ability to do anything,” said Jeramie Scott, senior counsel at the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), of the lack of quorum at the agency. 

A group of nonprofits and advocacy groups including EPIC and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) urged President Biden in a September letter to fill gaps on the board “as expeditiously as possible.” They wrote that the agency is vital to holding the government “accountable for safeguarding our privacy and civil liberties in surveillance programs that are often shrouded in secrecy.” 

Franklin, who will now chair PCLOB, has been the co-director for CDT’s Security and Surveillance Project.

The gaps have coincided with a rise in scrutiny of the government’s use of emerging technologies, such as facial recognition software and of online tracking tactics.

The board has in recent years investigated the use of biometric tools to track travelers at airports. Scott said that with a fuller roster, PCLOB could look broadly at its use across other agencies and into how intelligence agencies are tracking people on digital platforms.

“Similarly to what they're doing with the look at facial recognition at airports … they could do a similar review of the use of social media … by the Department of Homeland Security for their vetting,” Scott said.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) told the Technology 202 that the agency should "investigate how various federal agencies are using facial recognition, which can jeopardize privacy and civil liberties.”

By digging into other agencies’ practices and issuing public reports, PCLOB can also serve as a key tool for shedding light on how different technologies are being implemented, Scott said.

“They can look at information because of their clearances that we cannot and report out to the public, providing important means of transparency,” he said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has pushed for legislation to keep the board operating even when it doesn't have a quorum, said in a statement that it is "critical that the PCLOB’s reports be made public to the greatest extent possible, as is required by law.”

But a resurgence by PCLOB could also raise questions about the scope of its work. 

While the agency was initially created in response to acts of foreign terrorism, the federal government under Biden has been increasingly focused on domestic extremism and terrorism. More broadly, privacy advocates have also been pushing for the agency to take up more domestic matters. 

In 2020, Democratic lawmakers including Wyden and Eshoo and advocacy groups called on the agency to investigate reports that intelligence and law enforcement agencies used surveillance tools to monitor Black Lives Matter protests.

If the agency follows through and focuses even more on domestic matters, it could further expand the range of its purview.

Our top tabs

The IRS abandoned its facial recognition plans

The Internal Revenue Service’s reversal came after an uproar from privacy advocates and members of Congress, Drew Harwell reports. The agency will “transition away” from using contractor’s face-scanning service in the coming weeks and will develop an additional way for users to authenticate their identities not involving facial recognition, the IRS said.

“The agency originally had said that starting this summer all taxpayers would need to submit a ‘video selfie’ to to access their tax records and other services on the IRS website,” Drew writes. “But lawmakers and advocates slammed the idea of mandating the technology’s use nationwide, saying it would unfairly burden Americans without smartphones or computer cameras, would make sensitive data vulnerable to hackers and would subject people of color to a system known to work less accurately on darker skin.”

Biden science adviser Lander resigned

Eric Lander, who led the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), resigned after he acknowledged mistreating his employees and apologized, Tyler Pager reports

“Lander’s resignation came after the White House struggled throughout the day to explain why he had not quit or been fired, and how that squared with a pledge Biden made on his first day in office” to fire staffers who have treated their colleagues with disrespect, Tyler writes.

Lander apologized Friday, days before Politico published a report on the White House’s investigation into his conduct. The investigation, which ended in December, was prompted by a complaint from Rachel Wallace, Lander’s then-general counsel, after she accused him of bullying. White House deputy director of management and administration for personnel Christian Peele said the investigation found that there was “credible evidence of disrespectful interactions with staff by Dr. Lander and OSTP leadership,” Politico’s Alex Thompson reported.

Early investor Thiel ends tenure on Facebook board

Peter Thiel plans to focus his energy on the midterm elections, where he is supporting two close associates who are running for Senate seats representing Ohio and Arizona, Elizabeth Dwoskin reports. Thiel co-founded PayPal and Palantir Technologies, and he became a vocal supporter of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. 

“Facebook’s liberal employee base often criticized [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg’s relationship with Thiel and questioned his influence over the company’s direction, particularly Zuckerberg’s stances on free speech,” Elizabeth writes. “Thiel has long been a libertarian-leaning conservative who has reportedly influenced Zuckerberg to take more hands-off positions on whether to police misinformation and other harmful content.”

Thiel probably won’t leave the board until May. The company’s board has less power than other companies because Zuckerberg controls a majority of voting shares, giving him control over the company.

Rant and rave

Critics and journalists pondered the implications of Thiel's move. Preacher associate creative director Aisha Hakim:

The New York Times's Ryan Mac:

The Los Angeles Times's Jeff Bercovici:

Inside the industry

Kids are flocking to Facebook’s ‘metaverse.’ Experts worry predators will follow. (Will Oremus)

Tesla receives SEC subpoena over Elon Musk’s tweets and faces potential racial discrimination suit (Faiz Siddiqui)

SoftBank’s $66bn sale of chip group Arm to Nvidia collapses (Financial Times)

We’re fine without Facebook, German and French ministers say (Bloomberg)

Agency scanner

Uber and its delivery rivals reveal closely guarded data to antitrust investigators (The Information)

Workforce report

The market starts speaking out on a tech worker union effort at The New York Times (CNBC)

Neil Young urges Spotify employees to quit: ‘Get out before it eats up your soul’ (Variety)


Chinese social media savages California-born skater Zhu Yi over competition falls (Eva Dou)


  • Three FCC commissioners, including chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, lawmakers and others speak at the 2022 INCOMPAS Policy Summit today.
  • Tim Wu, a special assistant to President Biden, discusses antitrust and its effects on workers at a New America event today at 3 p.m.
  • The Senate Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on digital assets Wednesday at 10 a.m.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee holds a nomination hearing for Gigi Sohn, Biden’s nominee for FCC commissioner, on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
  • FTC Chair Lina Khan delivers a lecture on competition Wednesday at 8 p.m.
  • Twitter holds a call to discuss its earnings Thursday at 8 a.m.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to discuss the EARN IT Act at a meeting Thursday at 9 a.m. The bill, which would remove social media sites’ liability protections when users share child pornography, has come under fire from encryption and privacy advocates.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Rohit Chopra discusses consumer protection in the era of Big Tech at a Washington Post Live event Thursday at 10 a.m.

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