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Keynote comparison: two views of the government

The Wednesday and Thursday morning keynotes provided an excellent contrast. One could call them "government: for better or for worse." On Wednesday, Mikey Dickerson gave attendees an update on what has changed in government IT in the year since the United Stats Digital Service (USDS) was established. ACLU Principal Technologist Christopher Soghoian spoke on Thursday about the role of sysadmins in the age of cyberwar and digital spying.

Dickerson, best known for his role as "disheveled White House staffer", was brought in to help HealthCare.gov improve after its initial rollout. The U.S. government, like  many large organizations, treated IT projects as a single end-to-end workflow instead of an iterative process. Dickerson described how his team is working to improve the way federal websites serve the public. Although humorously cynical, he presented a positive view of where things are going. He also gave advice on how to manage infrastructure including a hierarchy that begins with monitoring and key lessons like "the system does not care about your feelings" and "a sufficiently complicated system of interlocking people does not think like a person."

Soghoian took a much different view. In 2006, he attracted the attention of the FBI when he wrote a fake boarding pass generator that had "Osama bin Laden" as the default name. More recently, he's been working to discover how the FBI conducts electronic surveillance and hacking, including the use of Stingrays. Soghoian described the Edward Snowden leaks as a wake-up call to the ACLU and the computing community. Sysadmins can no longer think about security as something they do from 9-5. With the access they have, system administrators make a high-profile target for anyone looking to gain access to systems or data. Sysadmins must practice good security hygiene.

The contrast between the two talks was very interesting. Both were delivered by excellent speakers who kept the audience engaged, but the message was very different. Or maybe it wasn't. System administrators have an important role to play in making sure the services we depend on are available and secure. Kudos to the program committee for putting together a thought-provoking slate of speakers.