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Privacy Perspectives | Howard Schmidt: Defender of security and privacy Related reading: Schmidt Discusses Trusted Identity Program

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The cybersecurity profession, the internet community, and online public safety professionals lost a great leader and friend on March 1, 2017.

Howard Schmidt, who served the country as cybersecurity advisor to former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, died this week, leaving behind a legacy of extraordinary public service, commercial accomplishment, and deep devotion to his family.

In Howard, the privacy community always had a true friend. His background as a police officer led him to seek aggressive investigation of online crime. At the same time, whether on broad public policy or specific investigative matters, he always had privacy and civil liberties in his mind.

Great computer security leaders come in two flavors.

First, there are those who are unflinchingly focused on all the threats around them and work relentlessly to stamp them out. They are generally mistrustful of just about everything and therefore cast a critical eye on every system they see. We need these people to reduce threats that haunt us daily.

Then there is a second type, every bit as aware of the seriousness of the threats that confront us, but still insisting on taking a broader view of the means to achieve security. Howard was a leader in this second category. Perhaps he was this way because of his practical experience as a police officer, knowing that the world is a complex place, neither all good nor all evil. Maybe this came from his experience in the technology business. Or perhaps this just reflected his generally sunny and generous disposition. Either way, all of us who worked with him, and all who benefitted from his service, are the better for it. He knew that achieving his cybersecurity mission required taking a broad view of the commercial, public policy and human context. He knew that systems that favored transparency and respect for privacy and civil liberties were more likely to achieve their goals.

Howard’s broad-minded view of the cybersecurity landscape was reflected in so many of the initiatives on which he led in his White House years.

Just in the time that we served with him, he championed a new International Strategy for Cyberspace, which advanced that view that the United States could only achieve our security goals if we also worked to assure that the global internet would be open, interoperable and respectful of fundamental freedom and privacy. His commitment to partnership with the private sector and multi-stakeholder policy development helped pave the way the NIST Cybersecurity Framework as a keystone of federal cybersecurity policy. When he met with proposals to enact misguided technical controls on the Internet Domain Name system to protect intellectual property (the Stop Online Piracy Act), Howard stood up for the principles of internet openness and safeguarding the basic Internet architecture. The result was that the White House threatened to veto the proposed legislation and Congress relented. And as the Obama administration came to realize that it was essential to strengthen the nation’s privacy laws, Howard was a strong supporter of our work on the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

When there were threats to the country that required cooperation and coordination across departments, it was Howard who had the trust of his peers to bring together everyone from the FBI to the Pentagon, DHS to the NSA, Commerce Department to the Department of State. 

The Howard Schmidt we knew and worked with as Special Assistant to the President and White House Cybersecurity Coordinator was about more than just policymaking. When there were threats to the country that required cooperation and coordination across departments, it was Howard who had the trust of his peers to bring together everyone from the FBI to the Pentagon, DHS to the NSA, Commerce Department to the Department of State. He was able to do this because he had a track record of leading law enforcement investigations and everyone recognized that his goal was to get the best result for the country, not claim credit for himself.

Equal to our admiration for Howard’s professional accomplishments is his unswerving ability to keep his personal and professional priorities straight. While he never left his post at a time of national crisis, there were a number of times when he’d announce that he had to go home to Wisconsin for a few days because he had promised to take care of his adorable grandchildren or to spend time with beloved wife. There were even a few nice spring days in Washington when he may have escaped the confines of the White House to spend a few hours riding his favorite Harley-Davidson motorcycle. 

We know that Howard’s wife, children and grandchildren will miss him dearly. We are grateful to them for lending Howard to all of us. We learned so much from working with him and the world is better and more secure as a result of his work.

Top image: Howard Schmidt (left) and Stewart Baker during a keynote discussion at the IAPP Privacy Academy in Bellevue, Wa., in the fall of 2013. 

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