White House's plans for privacy council fall short

    White House's plans for privacy council fall short

    Feb 17, Washington: On Tuesday morning, the White House announced an Executive Order establishing a federal interagency privacy council composed of senior privacy officials from two dozen federal agencies. While seeming to offer some promise, however, the council has a limited mandate, and ultimately represents an overdue nod to privacy principles the administration has repeatedly abused in practice.

    If the Obama administration wants to support privacy, it can start by finally offering straight answers to Congress on surveillance and intelligence practices that offend privacy. Instead, Congress has legislated surveillance policy in the dark while enduring a long series of executive misrepresentations.

    Last week, mere days after an independent panel (notably including current U.S. intelligence officials) refuted recent FBI claims about encryption tools, Congress began examining surveillance powers set to expire next year in a closed hearing, enabling a familiar pattern of executive obfuscation and congressional confusion.

    Intelligence officials including FBI Director James Comey have conjured claims that encryption threatens national security, and that private companies should allow government agencies backdoor access to encrypted communications and data. A study released last week by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, however, reveals that the FBI has been crying wolf.

    The Berkman Center report, "Don't Panic: Making Progress on the 'Going Dark' Debate," suggests that concerns about encryption undermining security are premature and overblown. In particular, fears that intelligence agencies are "going dark" by losing pervasive access to electronic communications, or data stored online, overlook the emergence of new data streams—especially increasingly vast sets of unencrypted data produced by household devices connected to the Internet.

    These devices include not only the computers and smart phones for which encryption is an essential security and privacy tool, but also "toasters to bedsheets, light bulbs, cameras, toothbrushes, door locks, cars, watches and other wearables." 

    EFF Board member Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor who serves as faculty chair of the Berkman Center, noted that the review group's unique composition enabled a broader perspective than either the agencies or Congress have sought, enabling a "debate beyond its well-known bumper stickers." 

    The Oslo Times/IFEX


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