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A Fix-It Job for Government Tech

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

U.S. government technology has a mostly deserved reputation for being expensive and awful.

Computer systems sometimes operate with Sputnik-era software. A Pentagon project to modernize military technology has little to show after five years. During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans struggled to get government help like unemployment insurance, vaccine appointments and food stamps because of red tape, inflexible technology and other problems.

Whether you believe that the government should be more involved in Americans’ lives or less, taxpayers deserve good value for the technology we pay for. And we often don’t get it. It’s part of Robin Carnahan’s job to take on this problem.

A former secretary of state for Missouri and a government tech consultant, Carnahan had been one of my guides to how public sector technology could work better. Then in June, she was confirmed as the administrator of the General Services Administration, the agency that oversees government acquisitions, including of technology.

Carnahan said that she and other Biden administration officials wanted technology used for fighting wars or filing taxes to be as efficient as our favorite app.

“Bad technology sinks good policy,” Carnahan told me. “We’re on a mission to make government tech more user-friendly and be smarter about how we buy it and use it.”

Carnahan highlighted three areas she wanted to address: First, change the process for government agencies to buy technology to recognize that tech requires constant updates. Second, simplify the technology for people using government services. And third, make it more appealing for people with tech expertise to work for the government, even temporarily.

All of that is easier said than done, of course. People in government have promised similar changes before, and it’s not a quick fix. Technology dysfunction is also often a symptom of poor policies.

But in Carnahan’s view, one way to build faith in government is to prove that it can be competent. And technology is an essential area to show that.

Building that competence starts with something very dull — budgeting and procurement. Carnahan told me last year that governments tended to fund digital infrastructure the way they did bridges. They buy it once and try not to think about it much for the next few decades. That mentality is a mismatch with technology, which works best with constant improvements and upkeep.

Carnahan said that she was trying to spread the message in Congress and government agencies that a predictable amount of government funding doled out over time is a better approach to buying tech. Carnahan said the government should think of tech like Lego sets, with pieces that are regularly swapped out or rebuilt. (Hey, the metaphors work for me.)

She also hopes to use technology to help remove headaches that make it difficult for people to have access to public services.

As one example, Carnahan mentioned that she wanted to significantly expand the number of government services accessible through There, people can create a single digital account to interact with multiple services, like those for applying to a government job or filing for disaster help for a small business.

And like many people in government, Carnahan is also making a pitch for people with technical expertise to work for the public sector. Her appeal is part pragmatism and part patriotism. “Government is the single best way to have an impact on people’s lives,” Carnahan said.

She said that remote work had also made government jobs more realistic for people who don’t want to move to Washington, and so have programs like the U.S. Digital Service and the new U.S. Digital Corps, which allow technologists to work short stints alongside civil servants.

Carnahan isn’t pretending that changing decades of relative dysfunction in government technology will be easy. But she believes doing so is crucial now that technology is often the primary way people interact with local, state and federal governments, whether it’s registering to vote or getting help with a Medicare claim.

“Making the damn websites work is the fundamental thing that people expect out of government these days,” she said.

  • How do we keep children safe online? U.S. law more or less bans internet services from having users who are younger than 13. My colleagues at New York Times Opinion talked to young kids who are online despite the restrictions, and made the case that the U.S. learn from new child-protection guidelines in Britain.

    (There’s a back story about those clever kids in the Opinion Today newsletter. You can sign up here.)

  • A hammer falls on spyware: Apple sued NSO Group, an Israeli company whose software has been abused by governments to spy on the smartphones of human rights activists, journalists and dissidents. My colleague Nicole Perlroth writes that the lawsuit and the U.S. government’s recent blacklisting of NSO could be steps toward more oversight of the global market for spyware.

  • Thoughtful gift ideas! Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The Times, has lovely ideas for tech-related holiday presents that are not gadgets. (I bet Brian’s wife is going to love her digital photography lesson. Don’t spoil the surprise.)

I’m obsessed with the NASA spacecraft that launched today on a mission to smack into an asteroid the size of a sports stadium to knock it off course. Yes, this is a little like the plot of the movie “Armageddon.”

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Twitter Will Take Down Pictures of People Posted Without Their Permission

A sweeping expansion of Twitter’s policy against posting private information was met with backlash shortly after the company announced it on Tuesday, as Twitter users questioned whether the policy would be practical to enforce.

Twitter’s new policy states that photos or videos of private individuals that are posted without their permission will be taken down at their request. Twitter’s rules already prohibit the posting of private information like addresses, phone numbers and medical records.

“When we are notified by individuals depicted, or by an authorized representative, that they did not consent to having their private image or video shared, we will remove it,” Twitter’s new policy states. “This policy is not applicable to media featuring public figures or individuals when media and accompanying tweet text are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.”

The policy goes further than U.S. law, which allows people to be photographed or filmed in public places. Under Twitter’s policy, people could request that photos of them be taken down even if the images were taken in public.

But Twitter said that its policy is consistent with privacy laws in the European Union and elsewhere and that it had already removed photos of private individuals in those locations, consistent with local laws.

The new policy will extend privacy rights to users in countries that do not have similar laws, a Twitter spokeswoman said. Under Twitter’s policy, a user could have a photo removed if it was used to harass them or if they simply did not like the photo.

Twitter plans to make exceptions for newsworthy images and videos, and the company will take into consideration whether the image was publicly available, was being used by traditional news outlets or was “relevant to the community.”

“We will always try to assess the context in which the content is shared, and, in such cases, we may allow the images or videos to remain on the service,” the policy said.

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The head of Meta’s cryptocurrency efforts is leaving the company.

David Marcus, the leader of cryptocurrency efforts at Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, said on Tuesday that he plans to leave his post at the end of the year.

Mr. Marcus, 48, a longtime Silicon Valley executive in payments and digital finance, worked on many projects during his seven years at the social media company. Most recently, he spearheaded Meta’s push into a global digital currency that could be used by Facebook and WhatsApp users to transmit payments across borders. The project, initially called Libra, was later rebranded Diem after facing pushback from regulators.

“I remain as passionate as ever about the need for change in our payments and financial systems,” Mr. Marcus said in a series of tweets. “My entrepreneurial DNA has been nudging me for too many mornings in a row to continue ignoring it.”

Mr. Marcus founded Zong, a mobile payments start-up that was acquired by the digital finance giant PayPal. After rising quickly at PayPal, he was recruited to Facebook to lead its Messenger app, growing it to reach hundreds of millions of users.

While at Facebook, Mr. Marcus was heavily involved in the rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, acting as an adviser to companies like Coinbase.

He parlayed that knowledge into Libra, which was a pet project of Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s chief executive. Libra was an attempt to democratize finance so that people could use Facebook’s apps — including Messenger and WhatsApp — to send cryptocurrency to one another across the world, which they could eventually exchange for local currencies.

The project stalled when a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers questioned the company’s efforts and how much power the social network had over global social media. Mr. Marcus testified about the efforts to Congress in 2019, though it did little to assuage concerns.

The Libra cryptocurrency was eventually rebranded Diem, while the company’s efforts at a crypto wallet were called Novi. The mishmash of names often has been confusing, even for company insiders.

Mr. Marcus did not specify his future plans. Spokespeople for Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Jack Dorsey’s Twitter Departure Hints at Big Tech’s Restlessness

“I don’t think there’s anything more important in my lifetime to work on, and I don’t think there’s anything more enabling for people around the world,” he told the audience at a Bitcoin conference in Miami in June.

Mr. Dorsey, whose oracular beard and quirky wellness routines have made him something of a cult figure in Silicon Valley, has become a crypto influencer in recent months. Bitcoin fans cheered his resignation on Monday, assuming he’d be spending his newfound free time championing their cause. (A more likely scenario is that he’ll continue to push crypto projects at Square, where he’s already started building a decentralized finance business.)

Mr. Dorsey didn’t respond to a request for comment, so I can’t be totally sure what’s behind his exit, but it’s easy to see why he would be getting restless at Twitter after more than 15 years of involvement. He cut his teeth during the internet boom of the late 2000s and early 2010s, when being a co-founder of a hot social media app was a pretty great gig. You got invited to fancy conferences, investors showered you with money and the media heralded you as a disruptive innovator. If you were lucky, you even got invited to the White House to hang out with President Barack Obama. Social media was changing the world — Kony 2012! The Arab Spring! — and as long as your usage numbers kept moving in the right direction, life was good.

Today, running a giant social media company is — by the looks of it — pretty miserable. Sure, you’re rich and famous, but you spend your days managing a bloated bureaucracy and getting blamed for the downfall of society. Instead of disrupting and innovating, you sit in boring meetings and fly to Washington so politicians can yell at you. The cool kids no longer want to work for you — they’re busy flipping NFTs and building DeFi apps in web3 — and regulators are breathing down your neck.

In many ways, today’s crypto scene has inherited the loose, freewheeling spirit of the early social media companies. Crypto start-ups are raising tons of money, attracting huge amounts of hype and setting off on utopian-sounding missions of changing the world. The crypto universe is full of weird geniuses with unusual pedigrees and big appetites for risk, and web3 — a vision for a decentralized internet built around blockchains — contains lots of the kinds of complex technical problems that engineers love to solve. Those factors, plus the enormous sums of money flowing into crypto, have made it a tempting landing spot for burned-out tech employees looking to get back in touch with their youthful optimism — and maybe for C.E.O.s, too.

“Silicon Valley tech is the old guard, distributed crypto is the frontier,” Naval Ravikant, another crypto booster and an early Twitter investor, tweeted this month.

Square, which builds mobile payment systems, has always been the most natural outlet for Mr. Dorsey’s crypto dreams. But he has tried to incorporate some of Bitcoin’s principles into Twitter. The company added Bitcoin tipping and started a decentralization project called Bluesky last year, with the goal of creating an open protocol that would allow outside developers to build Twitter-like social networks with different rules and features from the main Twitter app. (Mr. Agrawal, who is taking over for Mr. Dorsey at Twitter, has been closely involved with these initiatives, meaning they probably won’t disappear when Mr. Dorsey does.)

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