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The Privacy Advisor | Former DARPA chief on encryption: 'Personal privacy is paramount' Related reading: Why the Apple crypto case goes beyond one company’s privacy battle

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The United States government’s argument for backdoors into encrypted devices has received a fresh blow as another of its own former top brass has come out against the idea.

Kaigham (Ken) Gabriel, former acting director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military’s top-secret, high-tech operation responsible for inventing the forerunner to the internet (ARPAnet), told the IAPP in a recent interview that he was strongly in favor of personal privacy even in the face of other interests.

Gabriel, a former Google executive and widely regarded as the founder of Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) – the tech of very, very small — is currently president and CEO of the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. In an interview at the EIT Innovation Forum in Budapest, Hungary, in late April he said that not only should governments not try to break encryption, they would never really be able to.

“If I’m going to take an example, on the recent case with the [San Bernardino] iPhone, I am more on the side of encryption of products. Personal privacy is paramount,” he said. “The reality is, we as countries and companies have had the technology to effectively encrypt things to the point where even nation states can’t necessarily decrypt them for some time now. I actually think that in general, that is a good thing.”

The FBI may not agree. On March 28, the FBI backed down in its efforts to use the courts to force Apple to break its own security and, earlier this month, FBI Director James Comey admitted that the agency has paid out more than $1 million to hack the San Bernardino phone.

Last Friday the government backed out of a similar case in New York after the passcode was retrieved through non-hacking methods.

format_quotePrivacy is historically a hallmark and a strength of the United States — and indeed all democracies — and I do not think we should cross that threshold." -Ken Gabriel

Like many others, Gabriel understands the FBI’s motivations. “Obviously I understand the issues surrounding the specific reasons why the FBI and the United States government wanted access to that particular phone and I am sympathetic to them. I understand it, but there are other methods and means of protecting ourselves and we have reached the point at which you have to decide: Is personal information and privacy more important than other factors? I tend to fall down on the side of [data protection]. Privacy is historically a hallmark and a strength of the United States — and indeed all democracies — and I do not think we should cross that threshold,” said Gabriel. “It’s a small but important step that we shouldn’t pass.”

But given the FBI has in fact been able to crack Apple’s security, will this cause a cascade effect? Gabriel doesn’t believe so.

“Here’s what I think will happen: One of the things people need to understand and governments need to understand, is that the private sector world is moving at such speed and with such energy and such economic power, that the days when government could leapfrog encryption with federally funded or defense-funded technologies are gone,” he said.

Gabriel has a point. Comey has also admitted that the expensively-bought hack doesn’t work on any phones newer than a 5S.

Nor does Gabriel believe in trying to legislate encryption out of existence: “It’s going to be very hard to fight and to push against those trends. The reality is, when people, for good or ill, get their hands on a technology, it is very hard to take it away from them and I think overall that’s a good thing. It will be a constant escalation: The government will come up with a way to break it and someone else will come up with a way to further encrypt. That’s ok.”

He is also in favor of Europe’s data protection regime: “I think that one of the things that I celebrate and want in almost any enterprise is diversity. Diversity of viewpoints, diversity of thought, diversity of cultural and personal values are absolutely essential. So when I hear debates or arguments that Europeans are ‘too tight’ or too worried about data protection, I think it’s healthy for us to pause and re-think. Maybe it's not right that I send everything up into Amazon’s cloud or Google’s cloud.”

“Too often these debates are black and white — it’s either wild, wild west or everything is clamped down — but it doesn’t have to be that binary. Diversity of perspectives is healthy,” he continued.

format_quote"I believe U.S. citizens and U.S. companies will be better off for some of the pressure that the European Union is putting on the Googles and Amazons of this world." -Ken Gabriel

Gabriel even went so far as to agree that EU policies can give support and backbone to American companies in protecting privacy rights. “I believe U.S. citizens and U.S. companies will be better off for some of the pressure that the European Union is putting on the Googles and Amazons of this world. But, of course, I also think that European companies and citizens could be better off by looking at some U.S. processes. There’s is a lot to be learned from each other,” he concluded.

Gabriel’s viewpoint will not be new to privacy activists or many Europeans, but coming from the brain behind the technology of the stealth fighter, unmanned drone aircraft, global positioning satellites and the M16 rifle, it could give the FBI pause for thought.

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