Mike Isaac

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Alec Ross, America’s Digital Diplomat, on 21st Century Statecraft

Hubert Burda Media/DLD Alec Ross (left) in conversation with Nick Bilton at DLD Germany.

For as stodgy and out-of-touch as the cogs of U.S. government seem at times, it’s not all paper-pushers working behind the scenes. Some are more in touch with what’s going on in the digital world than you’d think.

Case-in-point: Alec Ross, a senior adviser for innovation to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and soon Sen. John Kerry, who will succeed Clinton), who spoke at the DLD Conference in Munich, Germany, on Sunday evening.

Indeed, being tech savvy is built into Ross’ job description; along with the 155 other digitally focused employees at the State Department, he’s charged with finding technological solutions to the world problems, ranging from ending world hunger to dealing with violations of human rights. To the latter point, for instance, his office has helped smuggle fiber-optic cable into countries where the Internet has been restricted.

As for the coolest things he’s worked on (at least of the declassified projects he’s allowed to talk about), Ross spoke a little about two in particular, both of which I’d love to see in the field.

First, say you were a protester in Tunisia back when the Arab Spring was happening. If caught by the state, the police would almost automatically go for the cell phone you were carrying. “It’s essentially a guidebook to the resistance,” Ross noted, as the police can search through your address book, calls and emails to find the names and information on others involved in a resistance movement.

The “panic button,” a U.S. State Department creation already in the field right now, is tailor-made for those activists who live under oppressive, dictator-driven regimes. One flick of this “button” wipes your device of information completely, while storing all your emails and contact information to the cloud, so police can’t get to it.

The “commotion project,” another innovation the State Department is working on, stems from an initiative out of the New America Foundation, a non-profit public policy think tank in D.C. It’s essentially the Internet in a suitcase, giving the user the ability to set up an ad-hoc network without the need for an existing infrastructure.

It’s a key technology for activists in countries with dictators willing to shut down the Internet internally, because a) it doesn’t rely on either commercial or government-owned networks, and b) peer-to-peer networks make it more difficult for the oppressive state to snoop on protest communications.

As Secretary Clinton prepares to leave office in the coming weeks, we’ll see how much longer Ross sticks around the State Department. He didn’t say either way what his next steps would be, but I’d keep an eye on him if he decides to go back into the private sector.

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