SAN FRANCISCO--Like any great endeavor, information technology does not come without its risks, former President Bill Clinton said this afternoon during a speech at the RSA security conference here.
Clinton stressed that this was especially true given recent events in Egypt, efforts to secure free Internet access around the world, investigations into WikiLeaks, and the fallout from the Stuxnet virus.
"There are no totally risk-free endeavors and advances," Clinton said. "At every step along the way we have to ask ourselves, 'what is it we're really trying to do here?'"
Clinton closed out the weeklong security conference with a talk entitled "Embracing Our Common Humanity," in which he focused on the importance of making sure there is good political policy to back up new technologies, so as not to repeat mistakes made in the past. Part of such an effort also involves looking for evidence to make the right decisions, Clinton said.
"You can have all the technology you want, but if you don't have good information, you're going to make the wrong choices," he said.
Even so, Clinton knocked an organization that had plenty of information--WikiLeaks (or as he mistakenly called it during the speech "Wikipedia leaks")--for not giving up its own Internet records once under investigation. Clinton referred to the situation as ironic.
As was the case with a past RSA keynote speech by Al Gore, who served as vice president to Clinton, those with press badges were barred from attending the talk by Clinton because of a "contract restriction." But RSA attendees with different sorts of credentials (including, in this case, CNET News staffers) were allowed to snap photos and blog during Clinton's presentation.
During the nearly hour-long talk, Clinton ran through a brief history of economics and policy changes, emphasizing how the focus of the U.S. economy following his administration had led to a set of industries that didn't encourage IT jobs.
"We went through a long eight-year period when there was no source of new jobs. When all of America's economic growth were in housing, consumer spending, and finance," Clinton said. "And if you think about it, they're all inherantly self-limiting, and when you go beyond the limits they're all fraught with opportunities for disaster."
Of course hindsight is 20-20, which is why Clinton talked up the importance of risk in regard to projects like the Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The Hadron Collider was not just about subatomic particles, Clinton said, it was also about the computers, and the IT that made the setup possible.
Clinton also compared the security industry to a modern day police force.
"Throughout history, everything that has value is subject to being stolen, or altered," Clinton said. "So at one level, everybody in cybersecurity is sort of like the most modern cop on the beat. And you're dealing with human nature's inevitable tendency to try to take advantage of whatever the latest object of value is. But it is profoundly important."
Clinton said he believed his administration to be the first to deal with both the opportunity and challenge of the information technology era, with, among other things, its establishment of the Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, an effort to guard against technological threats that could disrupt critical parts of the economy.
"It seems ludicrous now, but every third person was convinced that the world would come to an end when computers failed to actually make the conversion when 2000 occurred," he joked. "Nothing bad happened, but the work we did provided sort of a template for the efforts that the executive branch made when I was there in the cybersecurity era."
Following his speech, Clinton briefly mentioned yesterday's Silicon Valley visit by President Obama during a question and answer session. Clinton said he hoped Obama was going through a similar process to the one he himself went through in 1991-92, in which his administration tried to determine where jobs were likely to come from, as well as what public policies and private incentives were likely to bring the biggest gains.
"I think you have to understand where we are, where we're going, and what we need to do," Clinton said.