USA TODAY International Edition

At SXSW, unlikely allies in privacy- law fight

- John Shinal

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.

 ?? SAUL LOEB, AFP/ GETTY IMAGES ?? U. S. Rep. Darrell Issa says he’d rather have an “encryption economy” than surveillan­ce.
SAUL LOEB, AFP/ GETTY IMAGES U. S. Rep. Darrell Issa says he’d rather have an “encryption economy” than surveillan­ce.
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GETTY IMAGES ?? Privacy advocate and author Bruce Schneier in 2010.
FILE PHOTO BY AFP/ GETTY IMAGES Privacy advocate and author Bruce Schneier in 2010.

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