Conflict and Common Goals: the Government and Silicon Valley

[Note: This item comes from friend Jen Snow. DLH]

Conflict and Common Goals: the Government and Silicon Valley
By Levi Maxey
Oct 30 2016

Earlier this month, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper describedreaching out to the private sector as a “daunting task,” and that “there is still much to be done,” to improve information sharing in the age of digital communications. Brad Brekke, the FBI’s director of private sector engagement, added that there is a need to go even further than that, and “move from information sharing to collaboration.” These statements allude to the ongoing tensions between the government and the tech giants of Silicon Valley.

Tensions remain

These tensions are not new by any means, but were clearly—and publicly—demonstrated in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015. Despite a warrant, Apple refused to help the FBI access information on one of the suspect’s iPhones. Apple claimed that the FBI’s request to change the software of the seized phone—which would allow the FBI to automatically attempt the 10,000 possible pin combinations without activating a security system designed to erase all data after too many incorrect guesses—would weaken the encryption of Apple’s entire system as it could be used on all iPhones, anywhere in the world.

Cipher Brief expert and former Senior Deputy General Council at the CIA, Robert Eatinger, argues that by refusing the lawful request from the FBI, a private company has made a decision that affects all Americans. “We were not asked if we wanted to amend the Constitution to withhold from our government the authority to search the contents of cellphones used by any person, for any purpose, anywhere in the world,” he writes. Apple has effectively “imposed terms of governance on the American people without our consent.”

The situation begs for a deeper public discussion on the trade-offs between strong technical security for the consumer and providing the government sufficient tools to effectively mitigate security threats.

There are issues inherent in digital communications that do not recognize national borders. The pros and cons of individual government policies can fall by the wayside when considering the global nature of the Internet and the industry surrounding it. True, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to cooperate with tech companies because many of them are based there, but the products of these companies are used around the world. Should the security of people living under foreign governments affect the decision-making calculus on how Americans ensure their own security? Is Apple able to grant the U.S. intelligence community access to iPhones while denying Chinese intelligence services the same?

Though the public debate is portrayed as one of competing values—privacy vs. security—these questions are not necessarily about opposing principles. Both the U.S. government and private industry have common goals: the promotion of free speech and individual liberty while combatting extremism and violence. Rather, it seems that new technologies have raised conflicting views on how best to achieve those goals—and the shared values, it could be argued, are getting lost in the debate.

Nuala O’Connor, President and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology asserts “all Americans—including both company executives and law enforcement officials across the nation—want to keep our country safe and secure.”

But progress is possible

Tech companies sharing information with government is not new. This became immediately apparent in 2013, after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the NSA program PRISM, which allowed the collection from prominent tech companies of Internet communications data being transmitted abroad. Recently it was revealed that Yahoo has been scanning emails in real time for intelligence agencies, using a modified spam-filter to search for a character string associated with a foreign terrorist organization.



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