What the US Government Really Thinks About Encryption

The national debate over the growing use of encryption on consumer devices is often framed in stark terms: Silicon Valley versus Washington in a bicoastal battle over privacy.

It’s easy to see why. FBI Director James Comey grabs headlines every time he says that law enforcement efforts are hindered by strong security features commonly used in popular apps and smartphones. His concerns took center stage in the Justice Department’s recent legal campaign to force Apple to help unlock an iPhone used by the gunman in the Islamic State-inspired San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack.

But inside the Obama administration, behind closed doors, the discussion is much more nuanced. A vigorous debate over the merits of widespread encryption is playing out, with many key government figures quietly advocating against any government policy decision or legislation that would force tech companies to weaken privacy-enhancing products to allow greater government access to communications.

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Can White House, Tech Startups Overcome Gun Lobby Resistance to ‘Smart Guns’?

As an engineer who has worked to ensure the safety of power plants and improve the performance of automotive airbags, Omer Kiyani has been drawn to jobs where he can help save lives.

So after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in December 2012 sparked a nationwide debate over gun control and safety, Mr. Kiyani knew his engineering skills could make a difference.

A lifelong gun owner and member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Kiyani felt that additional gun control wasn’t the answer to curbing firearm violence but that technology could help saving lives.

While some are hailing smart guns and similar technology as part of the solution to gun violence, others complain the technology is a backdoor to further gun control. Furthermore, many critics and researchers have demonstrated defects in smart gun technology that raise concerns over reliability and security.

The Obama administration added fuel to the smart gun debate last week. A joint report released by the Justice Department, Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security details the administration’s efforts to jumpstart smart gun research and to create a market for the weapons among law enforcement.

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Rep. Katherine Clark’s Crusade Against the Internet’s Tormentors

It was a late Sunday night in February and Katherine Clark’s two teenage boys had turned in for the night. Clark and her husband, Rodney Dowell, were looking forward to relaxing. They’d just settled into an episode of “Veep” – one of their favorites – when Ms. Clark, a Democratic congresswoman from Massachusetts, noticed flashing blue-and-red lights outside her suburban Boston home. They hadn’t heard any sirens. Maybe a home alarm went off by mistake, they thought, or a neighbor was having a medical emergency?

Clark hurriedly stepped outside to investigate. That’s when her curiosity turned to panic. As she squinted through the floodlights, Clark saw police cruisers blocking off her street and an officer with a long gun drawn.

“Has there been some terrible incident in a neighbor’s house, or is someone on the loose?” Clark remembered thinking. Then two officers walked up to her calmly. Just minutes earlier, they told her, a caller phoned police and reported an active shooter was inside Clark’s home. Was everything OK, they asked.

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A masked Belgian police officer took part operations after last week's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 25, 2016. (Reuters/Vincent Kessler)

With or Without Evidence, Terrorism Fuels Combustible Encryption Debate

In another front in the debate between technologists and law enforcement over the spread of encryption, French lawmakers this week will consider a law to force companies to decrypt customers’ communications if presented with a warrant.

It’s just one of several measures introduced to the French legislature in the response to the brutal Islamic State terrorist attack on Paris last November that left 130 people dead and dozens more wounded. And now, the deadly Brussels airport bombings last week are adding new fuel to the political firestorm over encryption.

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Mobile phones at a roadside repair kiosk that charges phones using a solar panel in Mali. (Reuters)

How New Encryption Standard Could Leave Poor Web Users Exposed

Even as fluid as the digital world can sometimes seem, change is never easy online.

As leading tech companies have attempted to push for websites to adopt stronger encryption standards, which can safeguard critical data as it moves around the Internet, some older browsers and computers are not able to support many of the updated protocols needed to enhance digital security.

That’s especially the case in the developing world, where many people still rely on older devices and Web browsers to get online and where government surveillance is often the most pervasive.

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A lock icon, signifying an encrypted Internet connection, is seen on an Internet Explorer browser. (Reuters)

Digital Divide Widens as the Web Adopts Stronger Encryption Standard

On New Year’s Day, a change meant to strengthen online security will have the inverse effect, too, leaving millions of users’ Web traffic completely exposed.

Microsoft, Google, and Mozilla will start phasing out older Internet encryption in Edge, Chrome, and Firefox browsers in favor of a newer, more secure standard. The aim is to get websites to adopt a beefier security method for ensuring private communications and safe bank transactions over the Internet.

But Web browsers that haven’t been updated in the past few years or older generations of many mobile devices, which are commonplace in much of the developing world, will be unable to use the updated encryption standard. That means that many of those users will lose access to online functions protected by the Web protocol called Secure HTTP, or HTTPS.

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A spectator walks past illuminations of a French tricolour flag, in tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks, as she arrives to watch the ATP Tennis Finals in London. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Paris Attacks Stir Global Debate over Online Encryption

As French officials continue to track down those who planned and helped carry out Friday’s brutal attacks in Paris, the terrorist attacks are already sparking a heated debate about whether national security concerns should entitle governments to greater ability to track secret communications and break the encryption increasingly found on consumer devices.

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A ceremony to launch the diesel-electric submarine "Rostov-on-Don" at the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg, Russia, in June 2014. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

Why the Russian Threat to Undersea Cables Is Overblown

It sounds like something from a Hollywood blockbuster – Russian submarines mapping the telephone and Internet cables under the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, ready to cut them at a moment’s notice and leave North America digitally stranded, cut off from the rest of the world.

But that’s exactly what unnamed Pentagon officials say they worry could be in the works, according to a New York Times article published last week.

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Protesters outside the Lebanon Public Library gathered to show support for running a Tor relay at the New Hampshire library. (Joe Uchill/The Christian Science Monitor)

Law Enforcement Emails Highlight Entrenched Camps in Tor Debate

At a public hearing last week, city officials in Lebanon, N.H., voted to restart a server in their public library that is part of the Tor anonymous Web browser. The decisions came in response to a flood of support from privacy advocates and civil libertarians after officials temporarily shut that server down.

E-mails obtained by the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union and shared with Passcode highlight the entrenched camps in the debate: law enforcement, who often deal with the worst-case scenarios of anonymity technology – such as child pornography – and privacy advocates, who encounter some of its best uses – political freedom and avoiding surveillance.

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Can Tweeters Be Tamed?

It was a simple tweet, with just a hint of edge. After police used tear gas and rubber bullets against Black Lives Matter protesters in Berkeley, Calif., on Dec. 6, Kaya Oakes, an author and lecturer who teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley, posted a note offering students injured in the protest extra time to finish an assignment.

“If any of my #Berkeley students were teargassed, batoned, or shot w/rubber bullets last night, you can have an extension on your essay,” Ms. Oakes tweeted.

The tweet was tongue-in-cheek, according to Oakes, but it was also a show of support for what she thought was a largely peaceful protest that police met with undue force. But after conservative pundit Michelle Malkin’s Twitchy blog picked up Oakes’s tweet, it took on a life of its own. Over the course of the next two days, Oakes’s tweet showed up on the blog of Megyn Kelly at Fox News, the Fox and Friends’ Facebook page, and a local CBS affiliate.

Read the rest of this article by Harry Bruinius, to which I contributed reporting, at the Christian Science Monitor …

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia Meetup in 2009. (Sage Ross via Flickr)

Lawmakers Revive Support for Aaron’s Law to Reform Anti-Hacking Statute

In 2011, her partner, the Internet activist Aaron Swartz, snuck into a wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloaded millions of scholarly articles from an online database. He was later arrested and prosecutors charged him with violations under the fraud and abuse act that carried up to 35 years in prison. Before any trial or deal with federal prosecutors, however, Mr. Swartz, 26, committed suicide.

Swartz’s friends, family members, and fellow activists blamed his death on an overzealous prosecution and a harsh application of the federal anti-hacking statute.

As a result, in June 2013, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California introduced a bill known as “Aaron’s Law” to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which critics such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have long complained has been so abused that it stifles security research and hampers innovation.

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Censorship (Eric Drooker)

Scaling the Firewall: Ways Around Government Censorship Online

When Turkey temporarily blocked more than 100 websites — including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — earlier this month in an effort to censor a photo that authorities there called “terrorist propaganda,” the blackout generated an uproar across the Web and #twitterisblockedinturkey became a top trending hashtag on Twitter.

Online censorship is something the Turkish people are becoming accustomed to, and are increasingly finding ways around. And they are hardly alone in facing regular online outages.

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A man walks with a cell pone. (Ann Hermes/Christian Science Monitor)

Burner Promotion Shows How Much Phone Numbers Reveal

It can be unsettling to watch a computer spit out your personal information before it even knows your name. Especially when the information appears in a terminal font, superimposed over a map of your area.

That’s probably what you’ll see if you take the Burner Challenge, which uses your phone number to show you just how much information those digits can reveal – everything from names of acquaintances, to lists of old employers, to your current and previous addresses. And it’s all gleaned from public sources.

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