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Security vs. privacy: The endless fiery debate continues

Taylor Armerding | Oct. 7, 2016
There was general agreement at this week’s Cambridge Cyber Summit at MIT that it is imperative to find a balance between the often-competing needs of national security and individual privacy. But there was no agreement on what that balance would look like

The intractable nature of the “privacy vs. security” debate, in a world where the internet is a tool for criminals, spies and terrorists as well as for billions of law-abiding citizens, was on full display during Wednesday’s Cambridge Cyber Summit at MIT.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t get resolved.

The event, hosted by The Aspen Institute, CNBC and MIT, featured top-level government officials, private-sector experts and activists, who all agreed that there needs to be a “conversation” about how to “balance” the two, and that to achieve it will require more effective cooperation between the public and private sectors.

But there was no agreement about where that balance lies. About the best they could do, after some conversation that got chaotic at times, was agree that they should continue the conversation.

Admiral Michael S. Rogers, commander of the US Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency (NSA) – perhaps the highest-profile participant of the day – told the gathering during the opening session that, “the sweet spot to me is how do we create a partnership between the private sector and the government where the best of both are brought together for a unified purpose.”

He told interviewer Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of Aspen, that security at the expense of privacy or vice versa is, “not a great place for us to be. So, how do we find this middle ground?

“This is a tough challenge for us,” he said, acknowledging the increased level of mistrust in government following revelations like those of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and reports just this week that the US government had essentially conscripted Yahoo to scan emails in real time for key words.

Yahoo issued a statement Wednesday calling the report by Reuters “misleading.”

Isaacson noted that some elements of the conflict didn’t exist before the online world. “It used to be that nothing – the trunk of your car, your safe deposit box, your diary – was out of the reach of law if a court said it could be searched,” he said, while encryption levels are now at a point where in some cases government is unable to crack it.

That was famously illustrated earlier this year when the FBI insisted that Apple help the agency break into the iPhone of the deceased San Bernardino mass murderer. Apple CEO Tim Cook said that would be like introducing a “cancer” that would compromise all users.

But Rogers said he found it both puzzling and frustrating that there doesn’t seem to be much public opposition to court approvals of warrants for law enforcement or intelligence to access the telephone communications of certain individuals, but there is much more strenuous objections to the same thing regarding emails.


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