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The Privacy Advisor | Anti-Encryption, Mass Surveillance Debate Grows Louder Related reading: The Privacy-Surveillance Conversation Is Changing Post-Paris



Debates around government surveillance and access to encrypted communications and data are only growing louder in the shadow of last week’s terror attacks in Paris. The White House and congressional staffers, for one, have asked Silicon Valley executives to come to Washington, DC, in order to find a resolution to the encryption standoff currently taking place.

Though there is no evidence as of yet that last week's attackers used encrypted communications technology, government intelligence authorities and several lawmakers have not minced any words about the obstacle encryption poses in tracking suspects. Some, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), have gone so far as to call for legislation mandating so-called backdoors to encrypted apps.

There have also been reports this week that the Islamic State has created a manual for followers to teach them about encryption. The 34-page document, written in Arabic, includes a list of more than 40 consumer products that provide secure communications services. However, this is currently being disputed. According to Rita Katz, these are manuals date back to December 2014 for Gaza activists.

NBC News also reports the group has a “help desk” to help recruits understand privacy protection and secure communication avenues. Additionally, communications encryption service Telegram is having to shut down multiple ISIS accounts.

On Thursday, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton echoed the White House in calling on Silicon Valley to work with government to come up with an appropriate solution. “We need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary,” she said during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We need our best minds in the private sector to develop solutions that will both keep us safe and protect our privacy.”

The Washington Post Editorial Board also jumped into the fray, writing, “We don’t have a solution, but it would be in everyone’s interest to keep looking for one, before the next catastrophe.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance went further, calling for federal legislation mandating that tech companies design systems that allow for government access to communications data.

Such calls, however, have been rejected by the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) and its president, Dean Garfield. The group, which represents Apple, Google and Microsoft among others, said weakening encryption to help government surveillance “simply does not make sense,” adding, “After a horrific tragedy like the Paris attacks, we naturally search for solutions: Weakening encryption is not a solution.”

Columbia University Computer Science Prof. Steve Bellovin, who once served as chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, wrote a column for CNN arguing that building in backdoors would “hurt Internet security more broadly.” Bellovin adds that even if cyrptographers “get it right … how does the U.S. government handle exceptional access requests from other countries?”

Verizon General Counsel and Executive Vice President of Public Policy Craig Silliman has called for international cooperation between governments to counter transnational threats. “What we need is a new paradigm for cross-border cooperation, not simply every country trying to claim extra-territorial jurisdiction by their particular law enforcement or national security into other countries,” he said, adding, “That ultimately will break down and be ineffective; it has to be an international cooperation between all these governments.”

In response to the Paris attacks, European Union countries are planning a crackdown on cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, to curb funding of terrorist organizations. The European Commission is proposing measures to “strengthen controls of non-banking payment methods such as electronic/anonymous payments and virtual currencies and transfers of gold, precious metals, by pre-paid cards.”

In addition to efforts like these, a new “Room for Debate” in The New York Times focuses on whether Europe needs a new surveillance system. European Council on Foreign Relations Visiting Fellow Angeliki Dimitriadi writes that surveillance is not a silver-bullet solution to defeat ISIS, while the University of Buckingham’s Anthony Glees opines that privacy has to yield to security needs.

As part of new developments in a long-standing argument on that latter point, new documents reveal that the U.S. National Security Agency analyzes “social links revealed by Americans’ email patterns," but without collecting the data in bulk from American telecommunications companies—and with less oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

And, finally, The Wall Street Journal reports that China aims to manufacture its own secure smartphones to avoid risks of U.S. government surveillance. The effort involves both state-owned organizations and private technology companies.

photo credit: Paris en miniature via photopin (license)

1 Comment

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  • comment Michael Hagerty • Nov 21, 2015
    While Senator McCain is considering legislation to mandate backdoors into encrypted apps and encryption technology, he should also be working on the legislation to remove breach notification requirements in the event that these backdoors are used to access the protected data.  This would include all of the controls that are used to protect financial data, protected personal data as well as protected health information.
    Additionally, since it will be government employees accessing this data, he is going to propose some methods of watching the watchers or face the same embarrassment as the NSA in light of the Snowden disclosures...