In the past month we have seen a barrage of contradictory comments from government agencies and tech corporations alluding to cooperation or lack of same in the communications area. For its part, the government agencies are pressing the fight for for public opinion saying that companies, especially in the area of encryption, are leading us to disaster. This was a theme hammered home by FBI Director James Comey this week. Now the top British spy has joined the discussion with a dire warning.
Robert Hannigan, the newly appointed director of GCHQ or Government Communications Headquarters (Britain’s electronic intelligence agency) denigrated the American tech giants which control the Internet for providing the ’command- and- control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals.”
On the heels of the remarks by the FBI’s Cormey, it appears that this is a coordinated campaign by governments to sway public opinion in favor of tighter controls (e.g. less encryption) and against corporations pushing-back in light of government excesses. The American government’s position is that the companies are moving to such sophisticated encryption systems of email and cell phones that law enforcement is unable to keep up with criminal and terrorist activities.
In echoing the sentiments of his US counterparts, Hannigan was more strident in his condemnation. Pointing to the greatest present day terrorist threat, ISIL, Hannigan opined that its ’members have grown up on the Internet” and are ’exploiting the power of the web to create a jhadi threat with near-global reach.” He highlighted Internet recruitment of potential terrorists as a prime example of the Internet as a terrorist tool and called for ’a new deal between democratic governments and the technology companies in the area of protecting our citizens.” In the past organizations like Al Qaeda not only used the Internet to disseminate material, he noted, but ’embraced the web as a noisy channel in which to to promote itself, intimidate people and radicalize new recruits.”
The companies meanwhile contend that they are merely responding to demand from their users and that the users (read-the voters) are the one’s to whom governments should appeal, not the providers of the hardware and services. In fact this week Brad Smith, the general counsel of Microsoft, told a Harvard Law School symposium that companies like his actually ’will move to strengthen encryption”, and force law enforcement agencies to get court ordered warrants to obtain data. Civil liberties organizations, as expected, side with the corporations on this issue. The executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington D.C. , Mark Rotenberg, said, ’It is not for the head of a powerful intelligence agency to wave his arms and expect citizens of a democracy to gladly give up their rights.”
Technology companies have been adamantly against complying with government demands to hand over information about their users and reiterate that a court order is necessary. This privacy safeguard is engendered in the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
Facebook revealed in a company blog post that requests by governments for user information were rising rapidly- by about 25% on the last quarter. Twitter received more than 2000 requests for information about user accounts from roughly 50 countries in the first six months of 2014- a 46% increase over the previous year. ’ It’s such a slippery slope with these type of (government) requests,” said Stefan Weitz, director of search at Microsoft. ’If you say yes to to one request, more will inevitably start to come in. At what point do you stop?” What is apparent is that a balance has to be struck between privacy and national security. This may be occurring as detailed by The Intercept last month in an article highlighting cooperation between the NSA and US companies.
And moves to set up a formal information-sharing system have stalled in Congress because of objections from the private sector. The dilemma is captured in remarks this week by Admiral Michael S. Rogers, director of the NSA. Rogers told the students and faculty at Stanford University that “a fundamentally strong Internet is in the best interest of the U.S.” and that they’ll deal with the challenge of encryption. He said, “I think it is unrealistic to expect the private sector to withstand the actions of nation-states,” but also added that “I think it is also unrealistic to expect the government to deal with this all by itself.”
Therein lay the crux of the problem. How can the appropriate balance between privacy and security be achieved?