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Coalition Aims To Bridge Gap Between Government, Industry On Encryption

Digital Equilibrium Project says it will work to avert standoffs like the one between Apple and the FBI.

The controversy over Apple’s refusal to help the government access the contents of an iPhone recovered from one of the deceased suspects in last December’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino has highlighted the huge gap between government and industry in the whole encryption-versus-national-security debate.

A group of leaders from government, industry, law enforcement, and privacy organizations is hoping to close that divide via an initiative called the Digital Equilibrium Project announced Tuesday. The group’s goal is to try and enable a more constructive dialogue between government and industry on how to achieve a balance between national security interests and privacy.

The 15-member coalition includes former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Stewart Baker, former chairman of RSA Art Coviello, former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, former director of the NSA and DNI Michael McConnell, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology Nuala O’Connor, and former White House advisor Richard Clarke.

The Digital Equilibrium Project will release an initial paper at next week’s RSA Conference that outlines some of the new thinking and collaboration required between technology and government to avoid contentious standoffs like the one going on between Apple and the FBI. It hopes to follow-up with a mid-year summit where stakeholders, including Apple and the DOJ, will convene to craft an acceptable framework to guide policy creation and to broker a compromise between the two sides.

“The standoff between Apple and the U.S Government is a symptom of a larger issue,” Coviello said in a prepared statement. “The speed of change in technology has far outrun the ability of our current laws, policies, and social constructs to keep up."

One of the questions that next week’s foundational paper from the coalition examines are the privacy management practices that government will need to adopt to maintain individual civil rights while pursuing national security objectives. The paper will also look at the norms and standards that countries will need to adopt to protect their security interests while permitting industry to take whatever technology measures are needed to secure online trade and commerce against threats.

Both issues are at the center of the dispute between Apple and the US government over enabling access to the contents of an iPhone recovered from San Bernardino terror suspect, Syed Farook. Apple has said that it plans to challenge a federal court order asking it to develop software that would allow the FBI to override the privacy protections on the phone. (See FAQ)

In a dramatic open letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook compared the software that the court has asked it to develop to a master key that would allow the government to overcome the encryption protections on all iPhones. FBI director James Comey has dismissed Apple’s claims as exaggerated and said that all the government wants is some way to access the contents of the phone recovered from Farook. He has insisted that the FBI is not seeking any kind of a master key as Cook has maintained.

It is too early to say whether initiatives like the Digital Equilibrium Project can really bring both sides closer together on the issue. 

US law enforcement and intelligence agencies have for some time now maintained that the encryption available on modern phones from Apple, Google and others has made it all but impossible for them to examine the contents of devices recovered from suspects in criminal and terror investigations. They have been putting pressure on the Obama Administration to get technology companies to make it easier for law enforcement to intercept and access encrypted content and communications of criminal suspects.

Technology companies and security experts have said that acceding to the government’s demands would mean deliberately weakening security protections in their products and enabling backdoors that would let the government snoop at will.

The Digital Equilibrium Project is not the only effort to forge broader consensus on the issue. On Wednesday, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), will introduce legislation that seeks to establish a commission to examine the privacy and security challenges in the digital age.


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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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