Those even remotely familiar with Washington politics know that everything is political. A few agencies such as the Census bureau, attempt to stay above the political fray with varying degrees of success. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is arguably the gold standard of apolitical federal agencies. NIST has learned through experience to remain staunchly apolitical by focusing strictly on standards, science, and technology while keeping their noses and fingers well away from policy. As a result, NIST enjoys a good deal of transpartisan respect. NIST zealously (and appropriately) guards its reputation by avoiding policy and politics.
That’s why I’m both excited and worried about NIST’s role in the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC, pronounced “N-Stick”). On one hand, this emerging framework will benefit substantially from NIST’s knowledge and capability in technology standards development; and let’s face it, the Department of Commerce was one of the few agencies politically neutral enough to host NSTIC. NIST’s NSTIC team includes notable and respected scientists, academics, and technologists. But as our recent Whitepaper on NSTIC’s policy hurdles illustrates, NSTIC policy requires as much development as the technology.
That’s what makes NIST’s role in NSTIC unique: NIST must not only support the development of standards and technology, but must also develop the policy governing the use of the technology. Or, to paraphrase Scott David, NIST must develop both the “tools” and the “rules.” In recognition of these challenges, the NSTIC team also includes respected policymakers and thinkers led by Jeremy Grant, himself a universally respected policymaker. NSTIC needs both tools and rules to avoid abuse, and the inclusion of policymakers on the NSTIC team is essential to develop both.
In Washington everything is political, especially policy. Very soon the policy and governance debate will begin, and proverbial political bullets will begin flying from every direction. I believe that Jeremy Grant and his team will work hard to navigate the impending battlefield of industry, advocates and government interests. But even intelligent, dedicated and respected public servants like Jeremy Grant and his team need the support and political cover of their agency, NIST. And when the negotiations get divisive, political and ugly, NIST has a tendency to wash its hands of such riff-raff and retreat back into its comfort zone of apolitical academic and scientific research.
Among the worst imaginable disasters for NSTIC is if NIST doesn’t have the stomach for policy development and quietly cajoles the NSTIC team back into NIST’s comfort zone of standards and technology, ceding the policy to those with the most firepower.
Then truly, the war will be lost.
Advocates must watch carefully for signs of a NIST retreat from its uncomfortable role as policymaker. Mr. Jeremy Grant, we do not envy your position; you have our support, and we hope that NIST will support you too.