Texas needs to finally take technology seriously

Photo by Jennifer Whitney

Most people are unaware that the birth of the modern technology sector began in Texas.

In 1958, Dr. Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments invented the microchip, and the company released the first handheld calculator in 1967. According to the Texas Economic Corporation, today Texas is home to over 17,600 technology firms and employs more than 203,700 workers with an average salary of $96,000. In 2015, Investopedia ranked the information and technology industry just behind energy in terms of generating GDP growth in Texas.

There can be no denying that the technology industry plays a significant role in Texas' economy and in global innovation as a whole. However, our state Legislature and Governor's Office have not evolved to properly handle technology issues.

In the state Legislature, we have committees focused on culture, recreation and tourism, but there is no committee focused on information and technology and the many issues that stem from it, such as privacy, censorship, surveillance and protecting the open Internet. Instead, these matters are treated as sub-categories of "larger" issues that typically fall under administrative committees — and as a result, they are often ignored completely.

For example, in Texas, law enforcement regularly requests expansion of StingRay technology to help in their local surveillance efforts. A StingRay is a technological device that acts as a cell tower wherever it is used and gathers all data from nearby cell phones that communicate with it, unbeknownst to users. In this way, without a warrant law enforcement can collect data from all cell phones within range.

The Texas Legislature considers the StingRay request only from a budgetary perspective, and simply determines if there are enough funds to help local law enforcement purchase this device. They do not fully consider the implications the use of this technology might have for privacy.

Indeed, the use of StingRays is unconstitutional, as there is currently no warrant required to gather this data (The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that data on your phone is just as protected as the material in your house — and that therefore a warrant is required). As the legality of the use of StingRays has become more understood, the Legislature seems to be giving more thought to the privacy issues surrounding their use, but these implications are being considered too late.

There is also no policy expert in the Executive Office of Gov. Greg Abbott dedicated to understanding or following the technological advancement within the tech sector and its application by state authorities. Keeping up with technological advancements in the field is a challenging effort for those most closely associated with the industry, yet no one with a technology background appears to offer the head of our great state informed guidance on these issues.

Our state government must give more attention to the consequences of the use of technology and should finally allocate real resources to their careful consideration. We need a serious push by House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to establish a dedicated committee and staff to create institutional knowledge that would benefit the privacy and security of every Texan in ways we have yet to conceive.

It wouldn't be necessary to create an entire state agency to review these issues — but a legislative committee and a dedicated technology staffer in the governor's office would immensely help Texas ask whether certain technologies should be used, and to what end. That would be a serious step in the right direction.

Ron Yokubaitis

Co-CEO, Data Foundry

Shane Menking

President and CFO, Data Foundry