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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

“I'm still trying to work my way through personally, what is the difference?” he said. “But we've got to have this conversation. We cannot vilify each other.

“It isn't that one side is good and one side is bad. We're trying to make sure that these two incredibly foundational imperatives for us as a country are executed in a way that the one doesn't undermine the other.”

Still, Rogers never said specifically how he thought that should be done.

And just how difficult resolving it continues to be was illustrated about an hour later, in a panel titled, “Privacy vs. Security: Beyond the Zero-Sum Game,” where the debate got so intense at times, with participants talking over one another, that it started to sound a bit like the vice-presidential debate the previous evening between Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.

The declaration by Glenn Gerstell, NSA general counsel, that, “encryption is here to stay, and we support it,” drew open skepticism from Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

She contended that the real agenda of the NSA is, “strong encryption that only we (NSA) have access to. It’s disingenuous,” she said. “You actually want privacy with an asterisk. That isn’t what the rest of us mean.”

She added that EFF knows the NSA, “stops computers before they are shipped to put back doors in them. They discover vulnerabilities and then don’t tell the companies about them.”

And that drew an openly scornful response from Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and currently a partner at Steptoe and Johnson. He accused EFF of being unwilling even to negotiate the balance between privacy and security.

“You’ve (EFF) campaigned for 25 years against every security measure proposed,” he said, adding that there has not been any federal regulation of encryption for all that time either. “Companies can offer any kind of encryption, and they do,” he said.

He also said the debate over back doors is essentially irrelevant, since they already exist. “Every device in this audience has a back door, so they can send you crappy U2 albums,” he said.

Cohn insisted that government is still able to get anything it wants from online communications. And she said when Apple resisted the FBI’s demand to help it jailbreak the San Bernardino killer, “they got treated like they were a perp on the street.”

She and others said the interests at stake would better be called “security vs. security,” in that people deserve to have their physical safety protected, but also to be secure from government surveillance of their communications.


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