How to Ethically Hack the Government

Author: Collin Anthony

“The government sucks at technology,” Chris Lynch said repeatedly to a group of Stanford undergraduates eager to put their computer-science skills to good use. “When the government launched, only six people could create an account, which cost $1 billion,” he told the students while on campus February 28. That’s not a very good return on our investment. “Would it cost $2 billion to get 12 users?” he wondered aloud as students laughed.

Chris Lynch directs the Defense Digital Service (DDS) at the Pentagon, and one of his goals is to get students interested in working for the government instead of Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley tech companies that are vying for their talent. “The government needs people like you, but they assume you aren’t interested,” he said. For Lynch, this is a real shame, because there are ample opportunities for students to make a significant impact on people’s lives through government work.

His agency's work is as ambitious as any startup's mission statement: In collaboration with military families, DDS built a one-stop website for service members and civilian employees in need of family relocation assistance. And in 2016, according to the DDS homepage, the agency "engaged ethical hackers and leading security researchers across the globe" through Hack the Pentagon, "the first bug bounty program in the history of the federal government."

One of Lynch’s greatest accomplishments was obtaining access to important medical records for patients within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). When Lynch arrived, he noticed a glaring flaw in the design of the digital system responsible for storing medical records. It turned out that the system could only manage PDF files, but doctors were submitting JPEGS and other file formats that were incompatible with the software. This medical information essentially disappeared, and doctors and patients had no idea it was a problem until they were unable to access it at later stages in medical treatment.

Lynch discovered this problem and worked to fix it. “In just 45 days, I changed a family’s life,” he said. How many students working at Facebook can say that?

After Lynch shared his story, he fielded questions from undergraduates who were eager for advice about finding opportunities to work for the government. “Look for unique teams and opportunities,” he said. “Most people who do Stanford in Washington are policy-oriented students with economics degrees who eventually work for the World Bank.”

In order to break out of this model, Lynch urged students to “build something” for project leaders and “to avoid going after policy alone.” However, he cautioned that sometimes you will have to “do things that are unpopular,” as the government is “slow to change.” Nevertheless, Lynch believes that the success of the projects will speak for themselves.

The Department of Veterans Affairs would surely agree.

This event was co-sponsored by Stanford in Government (SIG), an undergraduate non-partisan political student group, and was funded through the Ethics Center's new Ethics Event Grant program.

Collin Anthony is Associate Director for Undergraduate Outreach at the Ethics Center.