People of ACM - Deirdre K. Mulligan

March 5, 2024

What does your role as Deputy US Technology Officer involve?

President Biden often says, “America is the only nation that can be defined by a single word: possibilities.” OSTP works to bring that idea to life by maximizing the benefits of science and technology to advance health, prosperity, security, environmental quality, and justice for all Americans. As Principal Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the (OSTP), I help lead our efforts to make technology work for the American people.

What are some of the key research areas within computing technology where OSTP has called for more funding?

Federal research and development must maintain and develop America’s global leadership position on science and technology. OSTP has identified key research areas that require additional funding to encourage the creation of new products, services, jobs, policies, regulations, and standards. These priorities include advancing trustworthy AI, maintaining global stability and security, meeting the challenge of the climate crisis, and working to achieve better health outcomes for people across the nation.

How did you initially become interested in the intersection of law and information technology?

I studied law because it was a key way to shape society. I was particularly keen to protect and advance civil liberties, civil rights, and democratic values. I became interested in technology—both its design and regulation—as a tool to protect civil liberties and civil rights while interning at the National Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It was the early 90s and we were just beginning to understand the role digital communication and information technologies would play in all aspects of society. Shortly after graduating from law school, I helped found the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT). From the start, the CDT deeply engaged with computer scientists and engineers to shape policy and technology in order to advance civil liberties and democratic values.

Those early experiences profoundly shaped my research and teaching career at Berkeley, first at the School of Law and then at the School of Information. So, while I’m a lawyer by training, I’ve spent my career collaborating with technologists, computer scientists, and social scientists to protect democratic values and human rights.

My work at OSTP has been one of the highlights of my career. I have had the opportunity to work on topics ranging from AI to spectrum to equitable data. I would encourage all technologists to look for a way to serve in government at some point in their careers using opportunities like sabbaticals or fellowships. Government at all levels is faced with solving important and challenging problems. Your work can positively impact millions of people across the country.

What is an example of an emerging challenge in information technology law that will grow in importance in the coming years?

Our society’s reliance on information and communication technologies as the infrastructure for daily life has created a massive privately-owned data collection and surveillance apparatus. Companies have a treasure trove of data about almost every one of us—location histories, purchase histories, our social networks, conversations, likes, menstrual cycles, even genetic sequences. Moreover, many companies use this information in real time to shape our informational, relational, and technical environments—what information is surfaced, whose opinions or ads we are exposed to, what features of a product are foregrounded, to whom our presence is revealed, etc.

Combined with sophisticated computational analysis, this has created new risks to privacy and related rights which cannot be fully addressed by old frameworks centering individual control over personal data and due process protections for the individual. For example, privacy harms may arise when an individual’s sensitive personal information is derived through analyzing data not directly linked to that individual—such as information shared by others in their social network. The use of the inferences and predictions made by AI systems can affect the right to privacy, infringing on people’s autonomy and their right to establish details of their identity. Importantly, this also poses vexing challenges for the protection of other rights, such as the rights to freedom of expression and association, and non-discrimination, and to values such as equity, justice, and fairness.

What unique role can government institutions such as OSTP play in a field that is driven by for-profit companies and academic institutions?

President Biden has been clear that science and technological advancement must benefit all of America. Government institutions are key to science and technology from charting the direction and funding research, to responsibly developing and using technology and science to address novel and challenging problems, to ensuring our policies and programs are informed by the best research, to developing and enforcing policy that directs technology towards impactful public purposes and manages its risks and externalities.

The Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence is a strong example of what the government can do when we pull all the levers as President Biden directed. The Executive Order directs the establishment of new standards for AI safety and security, the protection Americans’ privacy, the advancement of equity and civil rights, it stands up for consumers and workers, promotes innovation and competition, and it advances American leadership around the world. Crucially, this new initiative also directs agencies across the US government to take action to advance these goals. One outgrowth of these efforts is a new center for research and standards development to address AI risks. This new center directs the Office of Management and Budget to establish policies and practices to guide the responsible development and cultivate the best use of AI across the Federal Government, and invests in the research, infrastructure, and talent to do this work. The Executive Order on AI is a terrific example of the broad impact government involvement can make on a field.

The sophisticated and sweeping actions in the Executive Order on AI were aided by the presence of scientists and researchers in the US government.

At OSTP, we know that technology is a vital support and catalyst for service delivery, but only if used well. Decision-making should incorporate the perspectives of affected communities, technologists, data scientists, and social scientists. It is my team’s core mission to bring data scientists and technologists into the highest levels of policymaking. In doing so, the goal is not to blindly apply any or every technology to address society’s ills. Rather, when technologists are at the table, they can help create a more grounded understanding of when and how technology can—or can’t—contribute to solving a problem.

When designed, developed, and used responsibly, technology and data can help us achieve our great aspirations. These advances can open the door to a future in which we meet the climate crisis, strengthen our economy, bolster global peace and stability, achieve robust health, and open opportunities for every individual. All of us in the Biden-Harris Administration are committed to the difficult and exceedingly important work required to build towards this future.


Deirdre K. Mulligan serves as Principal Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). OSTP works to maximize the benefits of science and technology to advance health, prosperity, security, environmental quality, and equity for all Americans. OSTP advises the President and White House senior staff on key issues related to science and technology, and coordinates Federal Government technology policy and priorities.

On leave while at OSTP, Mulligan is also a Professor at the School of Information at University of California, Berkeley and a Faculty Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. Her research focuses on protecting values including privacy, equity, and freedom of expression in sociotechnical systems. Prior to joining the School of Information, Mulligan was the first Director of the Samuelson Law and Technology Clinic and a Clinical Professor at UC Berkeley School of Law. Before joining the law school, she helped start the Center for Democracy and Technology, where she worked on key tech policy issues during the emergence of the commercial internet.