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'Sen. High-Tech' is driving force

Bennett does take technology issues very seriously

Bob Bennett is "Senator High-Tech" in Washington, where his was among the first voices to warn of dangers of the Y2K bug.

He's chaired or served on a slew of committees and task forces looking at high-tech issues. Ask about privacy, security or the digital divide, and his name comes up.

But he's not as gadget-happy as one might suspect. Yes, he carried around an iridium satellite phone for a while as the clock was turning to triple-aughts and folks held their breath to see what the Y2K bug would destroy. But Robert F. Bennett the consumer just figures out what he needs to get the job done, and that's what he buys.

High-tech, low-tech, no-tech.

"I have a gadget car, a Honda Insight, that I enjoy," he said, adding that because there's no back seat, leg room isn't the problem one might suspect in the gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, which gets up to 70 miles per gallon.

"I carry a laptop. I even carry a handheld, but frankly, given the kind of life I live around here, I spend more time working off the little piece of paper my scheduler gives me. The handheld gets updated daily, but my schedule changes more rapidly than daily. And I have a beeper and a cell phone."

He's a dedicated "Lookey Lou," though. When he recently saw the newest Apple laptop computers, his first reaction was he had to have one. Then he decided he didn't, because "I don't do desktop publishing, and I don't create my own ads on computer." He hasn't even joined the high-definition TV (HDTV) revolution yet.

"I don't watch that much TV. I have cable here in Washington, and we don't even get cable where we live in Salt Lake. We have a satellite dish."

There's no digital camera at home, either, though he's not kidding when he tells you that if a constituent visits him in Washington, "the photo will be on the Web site in 20 minutes," courtesy of a digital camera in his office.

The Utah Republican was the first senator, by the way, to have a Web site.

But don't think his low-key approach translates into indifference. Ask him about technology and the issues that surround it, and you'll find he's given it a lot of thought.

The Internet, he said, poses special privacy issues, because "the Internet was invented for the purpose of sharing information without barriers. It's structurally antithetical to the notion of privacy. But the real issue of privacy is security. I don't care if my privacy is 'invaded' if the people who invade it are people I know and trust and I know they won't give my information away. I'm willing to give my credit card number to a merchant who's going to sell me something, if I'm sure he won't turn around and give it to someone who will steal my identity. Privacy is relative.

"Security is something I'm looking for in absolute terms."

The threat of losing control of a credit card number pales beside the concern that data used in business-to-business transactions could be subverted.

Privacy and security issues will never be completely resolved, Bennett predicted. As soon as someone finds a way to deal with the encryption challenge, someone else will try to find a way to break it.

He hails globalization, the offspring of such a high-tech world, as life-changing. With it, the life of a dirt-poor onion farmer in China who is on the verge of starving can change when a visiting nephew with a laptop starts selling those onions to a gourmet restaurant in Paris. Stock trades can flourish without time or geographic barriers. People oceans and nations apart can swap information that boosts their businesses.

"It's essential that kind of global market becomes as clear and open as we can possibly make it," he said. He believes the federal surplus exists because the economy "has gotten considerably more productive, which means efficiency and lower costs. Companies make more money, pay more in taxes and hire more people who pay income taxes. Keeping the increase in productivity going is a major initiative and an ongoing challenge for the technology world."

Technology has also created concerns about a digital divide. Once simply defined — some people had access to computers and others didn't — now it means more than that. "You can put computers in the hands of an inner-city child and not teach him how to use it and you have not closed the digital divide. You can put it in the hands of someone who speaks only Spanish and even if he understands everything on how to manipulate the computer, but there's inadequate information available in Spanish, that's another aspect of the digital divide."

He takes his dry cleaning to a Korean woman who pulls a string to release the catch on her electronic cash register. She's unplugged it and doesn't get the benefit of all its software, because pulling the string is simpler, he said. That's another aspect of the digital divide.

But he's uncomfortable with the idea that the divide should be closed by "government fiat." The vast majority of people learned to use a computer outside of a formal school system. "The private market itself does an amazingly good job of spreading technology," he said.

"The high-tech community has an enormous stake in education and how we help people focus on math and science to get us the workers we need in a high-tech world. The difference between computer literate and computer illiterate will create as many dislocations in our society as those who are traditional illiterates and can't read street signs. On the superhighway, if someone can't read, that's another aspect we need to look at."

Computers have been on the fast track. It took "double-digit number of years" for the telephone to reach half the homes in America. The personal computer did it in "low single-digit number of years, without government and education driving it. Marketplace and people want it."

Closing the gap will be done by providing important content, rather than just hardware, Bennett said. "Nobody's thinking about a television set when they decorate their home. What they want are sitcoms, the Super Bowl, weather information, some old movies. The TV set exists simply to bring you those. If we can get more programming, more software, more information for the small-businesswoman who is pulling the latch string on the cash register, the digital divide will start to close itself."

Being a leader in high-tech development has given America many valuable tools — and increased its vulnerability. "Y2K demonstrated that," Bennett said. "America is the most wired country on earth and therefore had the most to lose if Y2K wasn't solved. In other countries, Y2K coordinators shrugged. If you need an abacus to total purchases, you weren't Y2K vulnerable."

Such fears pale compared to his concerns about deliberate sabotage of the nation's "wired" infrastructure. Someone hacking into the computer system that controls the clearing of checks and transfer of money "would cause more damage than setting off a nuclear device over Manhattan Island," he said.

Stomp on America's economy, and you do real damage.

It's naive to think we can turn back the clock and return to paper and pencil, the senator said. "The support mechanisms for a paper and pencil world have been dissolved. You can't go back if you've taken out the Telex and turned it into a boat anchor. The whole transportation equation requires major new investment in technology."

That means an up-to-date air traffic control system, smart highways, railroad cars that are "routed intelligently and rapidly."

No high-tech impact will be felt more noticeably than in the biotech field, although it's a topic that usually doesn't come up under that umbrella, "but should." He predicts a revolution in health care with biotechnology that "can be truly staggering." And it can't come too soon, because if the practice of medicine doesn't change, it will be simply too expensive.

"The demographics of an aging population say we will run out of money, no matter how frugal we are, unless we get dramatic improvements," Bennett said. "People don't think of it as a high-tech issue, but it is."

Like the rest of Congress, the senator grapples with how to protect intellectual property, which was pretty clear-cut until technology gave people instant access to others' works through non-traditional channels. And it's not just songs downloaded for free on Napster, he pointed out, but "patents and trademarks that can be stolen that have enormous implications."

Bennett recently relinquished chairmanship of Congress' high-tech task force, though he's still involved. He's focused now on the joint economic committee, to which he's belonged since he came to the Senate. He'll chair the committee when the next Congress convenes, since it rotates between the House and the Senate. And he hopes to focus in part on the impact of technology on the economy, not just nationally, but worldwide.

He also hosts an annual high-tech summit in Salt Lake City, again tying technology and economic impact together.

It's not a partisan issue, Bennett said, adding he worked very well with the Clinton administration on high-tech issues. He's looking forward to a "very productive relationship with the Bush administration, as well.