June 24, 2020

Wyden, Colleagues Demand Answers on Open Technology Fund Purge

Trump-appointed official purged nonpartisan technical experts from leadership of crucial nonprofit on privacy and encryption

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden today led a group of his colleagues to demand answers, following reports that the newly appointed head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) purged the Open Technology Fund’s (OTF) CEO, President and board in order to politicize the nonprofit OTF, and direct resources to wasteful, secretive projects.

In a letter to USAGM CEO Michael Pack, the lawmakers wrote, “Recent press reports indicate that you ousted the OTF’s CEO and fired the President and Board of Directors as one of your first actions on the job. The new board you have installed has no one with any cybersecurity expertise, and instead is made up of partisan appointees with a concerning record on relevant human rights issues. Additionally, according to the resignation letter of the OTF CEO published by the press, you are seeking to change the fundamental mission of OTF and to redirect millions of dollars in OTF funding to technologies that were previously denied funding.” 

The OTF funds cybersecurity research in order to protect journalists, political dissidents and other users of OTF-supported technologies. The OTF has funded projects such as the development of end-to-end encryption now used by more than 2 billion users of WhatsApp, Signal and Skype. Reported changes to OTF’s mission and funding priorities pose risks to American’s privacy, national security and human rights.

“Reports regarding changes to OTF’s programming requirements are alarming. The OTF has long followed a policy of only funding projects that are released as open source, have been approved by OTF’s independent technical advisory board, and have been subjected to an independent cybersecurity audit. This is vital, both to prevent taxpayer dollars from being wasted and to prevent design flaws in technology that might put users in authoritarian countries at risk from deadly retaliation,” the lawmakers continued. “We are concerned by statements from OTF’s former CEO that USAGM is now seeking to steer its funds to programs that do not meet these necessary qualifications.”

Wyden was joined in sending today’s letter by U.S. Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Cory A. Booker, D-N.J., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., as well as U.S. Reps. Ted W. Lieu, D-Calif., Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., and Ro Khanna, D-Calif.

The lawmakers also asked a series of clarifying questions, to which they requested a response by July 15: 

  1. OTF is one of the most effective funders of cybersecurity research. In order to achieve its Congressionally-tasked mission, OTF’s board of directors must include people with cybersecurity experience. Will you commit to appointing at least two board members with a demonstrated background in cybersecurity?
  2. Will you commit to hiring a CEO who has a demonstrated background in cybersecurity?
  3. Will you commit to keeping in place OTF’s technical advisory board?
  4. Will you commit to keeping in place existing OTF and USAGM policies that require technology projects to undergo an independent cybersecurity audit to receive funding?
  5. Will you commit to OTF continuing to fund free cybersecurity audits for open source technology projects?

A copy of today’s letter is available here.