By Glen Fest
Vivek Kundra seems to have one condition already met for a tech czar's job: he's got a blog.
The 34-year-old CTO for the District of Columbia - who at press time was rumored as a leading candidate for the campaign-promised role of a first federal CTO - seems to match up well with a presidential mandate to create a government that interacts more with the citizenry. Kundra's gained attention for bringing normally arcane and paper-bound government data to the public through online wikis, data feeds, videos and other collaborative tools.
But any CTO (the list of names floated for the post include almost every famous tech executive, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oracle's Chuck Phillips and Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos) will be expected to be more than the nation's leading Friendster: he or she will take on a newly created Cabinet post with a mandate to lead an overhaul of the country's technology infrastructure, policy and strategy.
How President Obama and his regulators will take on regulatory reform across financial services is obviously the question of the moment, but foremost with bank technologists is how the new administration will delegate cybersecurity issues. The CTO post might also be a leading force in advancing cross-industry safe-computing and data security standards (which fall disproportionately into banks' laps).
Federal involvement normally has bankers and financial technology vendors sweating bullets, but in this environment, many are optimistic they'll see tangible and actionable outcomes from a tech czar or the office's deputies, says Catherine Allen, a former chairman of BITS and CEO of the Santa Fe Group consultancy. "I think the expectation is it would be more of a down-and-dirty role rather than a regulation role," says Allen.
Take security issues. In December, a report from the non-partisan think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) proposed the creation of a Cabinet-level National Office for Cybersecurity for coordinating federal security initiatives - including government-issued digital identities, modernization of cybercrime laws, and wielding the power of government spending to demand more secure hardware and software - and fostering these goals through public/private cooperation. "Having that NSA model that they're talking about makes sense," says Doug Johnson, general counsel of the American Bankers Association.
Information sharing between the government and the banking industry has already proven its ability to net intelligence on subjects like the resiliency of the financial world against a major cyber attack, and improved assessments of new threats as they arise. Industry cooperatives, such as the financial services group of the Information Sharing and Analysis Centers Council (FS/ISAC), ramped up inter-agency communication on cybersecurity issues between DHS and Treasury in the end stages of the Bush administration.
But there's a healthy debate about whether the CTO should have a separate role from a cybersecurity czar, which could be a part of the White House or the Commerce Department instead of within the tech czar's domain. However, there's standing agreement by most banking industry leaders they'd like to see the federal CTO push shared responsibility for data protection and privacy concerns onto hardware and software vendors. "It seems like financial institutions are always getting stuck with the bill," says Allen.
Expanding outward from the arena of risk, the CTO position could also be a bully pulpit for federal dollar investments in capital markets to create trading and risk management transparency. And perhaps no other area might benefit banks more than a czar-led efforts to finance, research and promote green IT and renewable energy goals that bankers are pushing their own CIOs to achieve.
"I would be reluctant, and most banks would be reluctant, to see mandatory legislation here," says Mark Greene, CEO of Fair Isaac and a former IBM global banking executive. Green IT is proving to be a viable business strategy; a federal tech czar's guidance, Greene adds, "should be sufficient to get banks moving in right direction in and of themselves."
Originally published in U.S. Banker magazine.
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