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Privacy Debate: Apple & Google Today; AWS or Azure Tomorrow?

Why the recent fight over mobile phone security and encryption is moving to the cloud.

The history of collaboration between government and the tech industry in the name of national security has ebbed and flowed for decades. From tapping copper telephone lines to bypassing the passcode on a mobile phone, the next frontier in the privacy/encryption debate will be over apps and cloud-based storage. Just as innovation has advanced the nature of how we communicate and collaborate, tech companies outside of telecom and mobile need to start paying attention to these developments, specifically with respect to cloud service providers like Amazon.

The concept of using encryption in a broad federated environment that protects data from the bad guys but still provides decryption capabilities for authorized stake holders including government participants are not new concepts. The financial and payments industries have had to manage these programs for years. Most of those organizations would not characterize the decryption methods implemented as a back door or weakened security as Apple has. The new challenge is how or whether applying these methods in new environments and platforms that affect an individual’s or private organization’s right to privacy is the best approach. There is a litany of potential unintended consequences. A major one could be a significant government interference on the free market competitiveness of technology companies.

As the matters surrounding Apple and Google continue to unfold, new information around law enforcement inquiries will come to light. The FBI’s fight against Apple has faded from mainstream media headlines for now, but ambiguities in the law have yet to be resolved in the United States. That means we can expect to see a greater discussion around amending privacy laws to address the handling of mobile devices and applications. In fact, a draft bill from Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr leaked last week is focused directly at providing the government legal ground to require device and cloud technology providers to enable government’s access to encrypted data.

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These matters are further advanced in Europe, with the French National Assembly recently considering an amendment to its counterterrorism bill that actively enforces decryption with increased penalties to private companies and their executives who do not design their own encryption. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to see such measures gain popularity back in the U.S., as lawmakers scramble to find a means to a larger policy solution.

The Board is listening

This creates a prescient reminder for board members and CISOs alike. A 2015 survey by the New York Stock Exchange, for example, found that more than 80 percent of public company board members are discussing cybersecurity at most or all of their respective boardroom meetings.

And yet, a wider public discussion of the issues has, largely, been lacking. Perhaps that’s borne out of procrastination. But what’s clear is that developing a privacy framework that satisfies as many concerns as possible should be a top-of-list agenda item. For the protection of their business model, and customers, mobile platform developers and cloud service providers need to be at the table during these discussions to ensure that laws do not provide government agencies too much leeway while also living up to their civic duty to not undermine public safety.

Because lawmakers have been slow to adapt to the pace of technology, criminal investigators have sought to manipulate centuries-old legal precedents as a means of recovering what they consider critical information in the wake of a terror or criminal attack. Solutions that are secure but which also promote privacy are essential. However, this can only be achieved through a proactive and cooperative approach. Can the security industry, working with law enforcement, curtail the next generation of legal challenges, ensuring that Amazon or Microsoft doesn’t become the next Apple? That’s an open question with the future, much like the potential legal challenges to come, very much up in the clouds.

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