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Privacy hawks turn to White House in encryption fight

December 14, 2015

Privacy advocates are leaning on the White House to counter lawmakers’ renewed efforts to pass encryption-piercing legislation in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

Despite a lack of direct evidence the technology played a role in either incident, lawmakers continue to use both deadly plots to promote a bill that would force companies to decrypt data upon request.

The tactic has left technologists and privacy advocates frustrated, even outraged.

In a meeting with privacy and civil liberties groups on Thursday, the Obama administration said it was preparing to issue an updated stance on encryption policy in the coming weeks, giving the pro-encryption community hope it might have a new ally in its fight.

“I’m very hopeful and the White House has been very receptive,” said Kevin Bankston, director of New America’s Open Technology Institute, who attended the sit-down with top White House cybersecurity and technology officials.

The White House is the one force in government that digital rights advocates believe has the power to shut down the what they see as damaging and distracting battles over a technology they say is necessary and inevitable.

“My concern is we’re going to be arguing this every few years unless there’s a definitive statement from the White House,” Bankston said.

Since the deadly attacks, major Silicon Valley players such as Apple and Google have been under intense pressure from Congress and law enforcement to allow investigators some form of guaranteed access to encrypted data.

As a result, privacy advocates say several types of useful encryption have become vilified with little reason. 

“I’m frustrated by this cynical, opportunistic playbook where the intelligence community sits poised to take advantage of whatever tragedy comes along,” Bankston said, “even if the facts on the ground have nothing to do with it.”

On Capitol Hill this week, FBI Director James Comey portrayed claims that companies cannot crack their own encrypted data, even under court order, as a business decision, not a technological imperative. 

Among them, Apple argues the company itself is incapable of getting at the encrypted data on its latest operating system.

“There are plenty of companies today that provide secure services to their customers and still comply with court orders,” Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. “This is not a technical issue, it is a business model question.”

Lawmakers have picked up on this message, using it to lambast Silicon Valley.

“Here’s my message to Silicon Valley: Change your business model tomorrow,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is running for president, said Wednesday on Fox News.

Joe Hall, chief technologist with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), which was also represented at the White House meeting, called this language “really infuriating.”

“What that shows is a misunderstanding of why one would choose to secure either a given communication or a device,” he added.

Providing “easy-to-use, mass market cybersecurity tools” keeps American tech firms competitive in the global marketplace and help secure broad swaths of data from rapidly expanding cyber crime syndicates and overseas cyber spies, Hall said.

Congress has long “been on the warpath,” he added, to get companies and individuals to adopt this type of secure technology. 

Yet suddenly, increasingly common forms of securing data and messages, such as end-to-end encryption and full-disk encryption, are under attack.

With end-to-end encryption, a digital message — an email, or iMessage, for instance — is only visible to the sender and receiver. Full-disk encryption allows people to lock down all information on a hard drive. 

During his Wednesday testimony, Comey told lawmakers that one of the shooters in the Garland, Texas, attack on a contest to draw a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed exchanged 109 of encrypted messages with overseas terrorists.

“We have no idea what he said, because those messages were encrypted,” he said.

Investigators have not produced similar examples for the suspects in Paris and San Bernardino, although ABC News reported the couple behind the San Bernardino shootings had digital devices with “some form of encryption,” citing two unnamed U.S. officials.

Still, these details have fueled those calling for a policy that would ensure government access to secured data.

Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have vowed to offer legislation that would compel companies to comply with court orders seeking encrypted messages. 

“I think this world is really changing in terms of people wanting the protection and wanting law enforcement, if there is conspiracy going on over the Internet, that that encryption ought to be able to be pierced,” Feinstein said Wednesday.

But technologists and civil society groups say such a bill would essentially amount to a ban on manufacturing or selling devices with features such as end-to-end or full-disk encryption.

The result, they insist, would be a world in which everyday people are more vulnerable to data breaches and dissidents are more exposed to repressive government spies. 

In response, these encryption advocates have turned their hopes to the White House.

“The White House has to look at those comments and what may result from where the senators are headed and start to take a proactive stance in regards to that,” said Amie Stepanovich, U.S. policy manager at digital rights advocate Access, who attended Thursday’s White House meeting. 

“We need somebody in a position of power to take leadership on this issue,” she added.

Privacy hawks have seen positive movement from the White House over the past year. 

For months, the administration was investigating legislative options and technological mandates that would allow law enforcement its desired access to data on encrypted devices. Ultimately, the White House decided to back away, for the time being, from any mandate.

Following Thursday’s meeting, attendees praised the administration’s ongoing attention to the issue.

“They really wanted to listen to our opinions and the research that we were able to bring in,” Stepanovich said.

But the White House can’t drag its feet forever, privacy advocates agreed. 

They see the administration’s current encryption stance as “no stance.” The position is allowing Congress and law enforcement to continue down potentially destructive paths that would undermine security, encryption advocates said.

A full-throated endorsement of robust encryption methods, such as end-to-end encryption and full-disk encryption, can cut off that path, they said.

“It could be a game-changer,” Bankston said. “I think it would help us put to bed this debate that’s been raging for well over a year.”

“We can move on and start having a more productive conversation about how law enforcement and the tech community can adapt to a world where encryption is common,” he added.

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Game for privacy is gone, mass surveillance is here to stay – Assange on #RT10 panel

December 11, 2015

Humanity has lost its battle for privacy and must now learn to live in a world where mass surveillance is becoming cheaper for governments to implement, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said during a panel dedicated to RT’s 10th anniversary.
Assange addressed the panel on security and surveillance hosted by RT in central Moscow on Thursday via videoconference from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has remained holed up for the last three years in order to avoid extradition to Sweden.
When offered a chance to comment on the session’s topic – “Security or Surveillance: Can the right to privacy and effective anti-terror security coexist in the digital age?” – the whistleblower asked the moderator, and host of The Big Picture Show on RT American, Thom Hartmann: “How long have you got, Tom?” implying he has a lot to say on the issue.
But it was Assange’s only joke during the event, as his reply turned out to be gravely serious and in many respects depressing.
“In thinking about this issue I want to take quite a different position, perhaps, from what you would expect me to have taken… I think that we should understand that the game for privacy is gone. It’s gone. The mass surveillance is here to stay,” he said.
Mass surveillance is already being implemented not only by major world powers, but also by some medium and small-sized countries, he added.
“The Five Eyes intelligence arrangement [of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US]… is so evasive in terms of mass surveillance of domestic and international telecommunications that while some experts can achieve practical privacy for themselves for limited number of operations… it’s gone for the rest of the populations,” the WikiLeaks founder stressed.
International terrorists are among those “experts” capable of making their communications invisible for security agencies, he added.
Privacy “will not be coming back, short of a very regressive economic collapse, which reduces the technological capacity of civilization,” Assange said.
“The reason it will not come back is that the cost of engaging in mass surveillance is decreasing by about 50 per cent every 18 months, because it’s the underlying cost that’s predicated on the cost of telecommunications, moving surveillance intercepts around and computerization and storage – all those costs are decreasing much faster at a geometric rate than the human population is increasing,” he explained.
Mass surveillance and computerization are “winning” the competition with humanity and human values and they’re “going to continue to win at an ever-increasing rate. That’s the reality that we have to deal with,” the WikiLeaks whistleblower added.
The focus should now switch from defending privacy to understanding what kind of society will be built in these new, changed conditions, he said.
The WikiLeaks founder reminded the panel of the historic examples of East Germany and other societies, in which people adapted to living under the scrutiny of the authorities.
“If you look at societal behavior in very conformist, small, isolated societies with reduced social spaces – like Sweden, South Korea, Okinawa in Japan and North Korea – then you’ll see that society adapts. Everyone becomes incredibly timid, they start to use code words; use a lot of subtext to try and sneak out your controversial views,” he said.
According to Assange, the modern world is currently moving “towards that kind of a society.”
Privacy is among values “that simply are unsustainable… in the face of the reality of technological change; the reality of the deep state with a military-industrial complex and the reality of Islamic terrorism, which is legitimizing that sector in a way that it’s behaving,” he stressed.
Assange encouraged those present on the panel as well as the general public to “get on the other side of the debate where it’s going” and stop holding on to privacy.
The panel discussion was part of an RT conference titled ‘Information, messages, politics:The shape-shifting powers of today’s world.’ The meeting brought together politicians, foreign policy experts and media executives from across the globe, among them former director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn, the Green Party’s Jill Stein and former vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, Willy Wimmer.

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Trump Says He Supports Reauthorizing Patriot Act, NSA Metadata Collection

December 10, 2015

2016 Republican presidential candidate and billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump said that he supports reauthorizing the USA PATRIOT Act and bulk cell phone metadata collection by the National Security Agency in an interview on the Hugh Hewitt Show earlier this month.

In the above-embedded clip, Hewitt asks Trump, “On metadata collection, Ted Cruz is glad the NSA got out of it. Marco Rubio wants it back. What’s Donald Trump think?

Well, I tend to err on the side of security, I must tell you,” Trump replied, “and I’ve been there for longer than you would think. But, you know, when you have people that are beheading if you’re a Christian and frankly for lots of other reasons, when you have the world looking at us and would like to destroy us as quickly as possible, I err on the side of security, and so that’s the way it is, that’s the way I’ve been, and some people like that, frankly, and some people don’t like that.

And I’m not just saying that since Paris, I’m saying for quite some time. I assume when I pick up my telephone people are listening to my conversations anyway, if you want to know the truth. It’s pretty sad commentary, but I err on the side of security,” said Trump.

Hewitt then asked, “Alright, so you would be in favor of restoring the Patriot Act?

I think that would be fine. As far as I’m concerned, that would be fine,” Trump responded.

Newsweek points out that Donald Trump has held the same position since before the Paris terror attacks. He said this summer, “I support legislation which allows the NSA to hold the bulk metadata. For oversight, I propose that a court, which is available any time on any day, is created to issue individual rulings on when this metadata can be accessed.

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‘Dark ages’ warning issued over freedom of information changes

December 7, 2015

Information commissioner tells Tom Watson’s review that Conservatives are risking a return to ‘private government’

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Exempting advice given to ministers from freedom of information requests risks returning the UK to the “dark ages” of “private government”, the information commissioner has warned. Christopher Graham told a review into the legislation that changes to FoI being considered by a government commission could lead to a blanket ban on all advice being made available to the public.

“The danger is the Whitehall machine might run more smoothly, [but] you are back to that world of private government which I don’t think fits with the 21st century,” Graham told the review, led by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson. “FoI is the price you pay for being a modern, accountable and efficient government in the 21st century.”

Details of advice given to ministers can be withheld if it is deemed in the public interest to do so, but part of the government review is considering whether ministers need a “safe space” to discuss policy with advisers.

The commission has been criticised for its membership, some of whom are on the record as having criticised FoI, and for holding private briefings and hearings. Watson’s review, which was set up in response to the commission, is holding public hearings. Though it is led by Labour, it has support from members of other parties, including the Conservative MP David Davis.

Campaigners for freedom of information, including Davis, think parliament is unlikely to approve any changes to the act. However, there are concerns that the government could try to water it down by introducing measures, such as fees for requests, that do not need to go before parliament. Graham said any attempt to introduce charges could “only be seen as a disincentive” to dissuade requests.

Watson’s review has said it will look at ways the act could be strengthened, including extending it to cover private contractors delivering public services. Graham said the act should “absolutely” be extended to make private contractors more accountable to the public, in part because so many more services traditionally considered within the public realm were now delivered by private companies.

He said: “I think it is absolutely essential that, as more and more services are provided by private contractors, we have to be clear about there being no less accountability.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office is proposing a range of measures that would open up private contractors to the public, including writing commitments to transparency into contracts and designating larger long-term providers as public bodies for the purposes of the act.

Graham rejected comments by the leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, to the effect that journalists were misusing the act to generate stories. He said: “Journalists will always give you a hard time, but that’s just life.” 

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/dec/07/dark-ages-warning-issued-over-freedom-of-information-changes

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Grassley steps up Clinton email probe, blocks key nominees

November 24, 2015

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is putting a hold on top State Department appointments — including the nominee for the department’s fourth-highest post — until he gets the answers he’s seeking from a former top aide of Hillary Clinton tasked with helping determine which of the former secretary of state’s emails should be made public.

The Iowa Republican — who also is investigating the special employment status afforded to Clinton confidant Huma Abedin while at State — has slammed the department for its “continued intransigence and lack of cooperation” throughout the inquiry, which dates back to June 2013. Critics, including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, have derided the probe as a politically motivated bid to undermine the Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign for the White House.

For its part, the State Department says it has responded to Grassley’s questions “in 16 formal letters and many briefings, calls and emails,” but remains overwhelmed by the volume of requests.

Grassley, who last week released holds on 20 career Foreign Service Officers, is now turning to bigger fish in a bid for leverage to get more cooperation from the department.

He is blocking the nomination of Thomas Shannon to replace Wendy Sherman as under secretary for political affairs, the No. 4 post in the department. In addition, his office told Fox News he has placed holds on the nominations of Brian James Egan for legal adviser and David Malcolm Robinson for assistant secretary for conflict and stabilization operations and coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization.

A hold is procedural tactic senators often employ to extract information or other concessions from the administration. President Obama himself made use of holds as a senator from Illinois, blocking nominations to the EPA during the Bush administration over objections to lead paint regulations.

Grassley’s holds came as he fired off a letter to former Clinton aide Heather Samuelson, posing 19 questions about the process used to screen the emails for the former secretary of state.

He also asked Samuelson what kind of security clearance she had at the time, given that hundreds of Clinton’s emails have been shown to contain classified information.

“Given the importance of securing and protecting classified information … it is imperative to confirm when, how, and why you, and any of your associates, received a security clearance in connection with your work on behalf of Secretary Clinton and whether it was active while you had custody of Secretary Clinton’s emails,” Grassley wrote in the letter, first reported by Politico.

“Further, it is imperative to understand your background in determining what is and what is not a federal record, since you apparently played a major role in assisting Secretary Clinton in making a decision as to which emails to delete.”

Clinton has come under heavy fire for routing official emails through a personal server during her time as secretary of state. The Democratic front-runner’s aides have also faced scrutiny for their roles in determining which messages to turn back over to the agency, which has been slowly making them public under a court order.

Critics have accused Clinton of putting sensitive government information at risk under the arrangement. Separately, the FBI has been investigating whether the setup resulted in the mishandling of classified information.

The State Department insisted it is trying to work with Grassley’s office.

“Over the course of the last several months, the mounting requests from the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee have contained nearly 200 detailed questions and 65 unique document requests,” department spokesman Alec Gerlach said in a statement. “The department is committed to working with the committee and providing responses as quickly as possible, but the growing effort needed to accommodate these requests is overwhelming the resources we have available.”

A Grassley spokeswoman described the level of cooperation as “sparse.”

Senate Democrats have urged Grassley to drop his objections.

“The senior Senator from Iowa comes to the floor and talks about the proper use of taxpayer resources,” Reid, the Democratic leader, said earlier this month. “He should walk into his bathroom and look into the mirror and find out what he’s doing about the proper use of taxpayer resources. He should be willing to tell us about the resources his committee is spending to investigate Secretary Clinton.”

Source: Fox News

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