USA TODAY International Edition
At SXSW, unlikely allies in privacy- law fight
Some conservatives and liberals are becoming unlikely allies on what they see as the worst of the Obama administration’s technology policies.
Those include the expansion of U. S. government spying on electronic communication and Presi- dent Obama’s recent push to either weaken or ban encryption.
This new, ad- hoc alliance is part of an emerging consensus among lawmakers, privacy advocates and tech companies worried that federal law enforcement practices are a growing threat to both privacy and economic growth.
“If I have to choose between unfettered surveillance and an encryption economy, I’ll take the encryption economy,” says Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California.
Issa made his comment this weekend during a panel discus- sion on digital privacy at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin.
In a sign of the bipartisan nature of the effort, Issa shared the panel with two fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee: fellow Republican Blake Farenthold of Texas and Democrat Suzan DelBene of Washington.
The three are among more than 200 members of the House who’ve signed onto a bill designed to overhaul the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.
That law, among other things, weakened privacy protections for electronic communications more than 180 days old.
Along with other, similar laws that have made it easier for the government to obtain private electronic data, the ECPA is part of a confused legal landscape regarding privacy.
As various federal courts have interpreted these laws differently over the years, federal law enforcement agencies — especially in the wake of the 9/ 11 attacks — have stepped in to assert broad authority to spy on U. S. citizens.
Issa says that broad surveillance violates the U. S. Constitu-
tion’s Fourth Amendment, which was written by America’s founders to prevent the “unreasonable search and seizure” of private property.
“While the statutes are murky, the Fourth Amendment is crystal clear,” he said during the panel.
As Issa made his comments in a meeting room of the JW Marriott Hotel here, ACLU attorney Ben Wizner and privacy advocate and author Bruce Schneier — during another SXSW privacy panel just down the hall — were making a similar argument: Mass surveillance is throttling both society and business.
“Pervasive surveillance leads to conformity,” Schneier said. “If everything we do is watched, we’ll do fewer new things.”
Schneier’s comments echo the position of a growing number of Silicon Valley companies worried that surveillance will cost them customer trust and future business.
“Right now, U. S. companies dominate Internet services,” says Alex Stamos, Yahoo’s chief information security officer, who was in the audience for the lawmaker’s panel.
“The worry is that someone else will surpass us” if customers lose trust in American technology over privacy concerns, Stamos said.
Those concerns were heightened in January, after Obama, alongside U. K. Prime Minister David Cameron, said law enforcement and intelligence agencies should not be locked out of encrypted messages.
The president’s remarks came after Apple, Google and other tech giants — stung by criticism of their cooperation with the FBI and NSA — built stronger encryption technology into their latest smartphone software.
The problem with backdoors — that is, a way for governments to use surveillance — is that they weaken encryption technology.
“Any attempt to weaken encryption via a backdoor will make it easier for bad actors to get in,” says David Campbell, chief security officer of SendGrid, a Boulder, Colo.- based security software start- up. “It’s a huge mistake.”
It also sets a bad precedent for other governments.
“Our government has asked companies to give them a backdoor,” Farenthold says. “But what if China and other countries ask for it” also?
Earlier this year, China did exactly that when they drafted a new anti- terror law asking for its own backdoor — a move Obama later criticized.
As privacy advocate Schneier said in Austin on Saturday, “the best technology can be subverted by law. We need to get both right.”
Farenthold said he’s confident Congress will act to shore up the privacy holes created by the 1986 ECPA, but fighting the administration on encryption will be a tougher sell.