My Top 10 Stories of 2016

It’s been a busy news year, to say the least, and I’ve reported on everything from primaries in New Hampshire to marijuana in Georgia to terrorism in cyberspace. Here are my top 10 stories of 2016, in no particular order:

Google, Privacy Groups Urge Congress Not to Expand Federal Hacking Power

Technology companies and privacy groups are asking lawmakers to reject a proposed rule change to federal criminal procedure that would make it possible for judges to issue warrants to search computers located outside their jurisdiction.

A coalition including Google, PayPal, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a range of tech advocacy groups sent a letter to leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives asking them to stop changes to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. In April the US Supreme Court approved changes to Rule 41 authorizing judges to allow “remote access” to criminal suspects computers. Opponents have cited the change as the “largest expansion” of search and seizure power in the nation’s history.

See the rest of this article at The Christian Science Monitor …

The FBI Needs Better Hackers to Solve Encryption Standoff, Research Says

In the high-profile standoff over cracking the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, Apple and other major American tech companies made it clear that they wouldn’t build special access for the US government – or anyone else – into their products.

But one leading cybersecurity expert says there’s another way for law enforcement to get the content they need for their criminal and terrorist investigations, without compromising the security of the millions of other consumers who also use those products.

Read the rest of this article at The Christian Science Monitor …

Tech, Civil Liberties Leaders Fight FBI Biometric Program

The Justice Department’s plan to exempt the FBI’s high-tech biometric database from public review isn’t sitting well with Silicon Valley or privacy advocates.

On Friday, a coalition of tech companies, civil liberties, and immigrant rights groups sent an open letter to the Department of Justice questioning agency efforts to exempt Next Generation Identification (NGI) – an FBI database used to match fingerprints and other biometric data with criminal records – from parts of a key law that gives people the right to review and correct government records concerning them.

Read the rest of this article at the Christian Science Monitor …

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.

Read the rest of this article at the Christian Science Monitor …

Federal, State Lawmakers Move to Curb Police Use of Cellphone Trackers

For years, police departments have had access to powerful technology that can mimic cellphone towers and allow officers to track suspects’ calls and text messages, often scooping up massive amounts of mobile data in the process.

Now, federal and state lawmakers are moving to put tighter restrictions on when and how police can use these powerful tools commonly referred to as Stingrays, which digital rights groups and privacy advocates have long complained can lead to indiscriminate surveillance.

Read the rest of this article at The Christian Science Monitor …

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.

Read the rest of this article at The Christian Science Monitor …

Rep. Katherine Clark (D) of Massachusetts spoke during the press conference in Washington on June 10, 2015. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

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.

Read the rest of this article at the Christian Science Monitor …

A detail from graffiti art attributed to acclaimed British street artist Banksy. (Reuters)

NSA Data-Sharing Plan Opens Door to Mass Surveillance, Say Rights Groups

A coalition of more than 30 civil liberty groups says that a potential change in how the National Security Agency shares data with other US agencies could jeopardize millions of Americans’ privacy.

The group that includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation is urging the NSA not to pursue efforts to more widely distribute intelligence information it gathered for fear it would give law enforcement agencies access to warrantless domestic surveillance.

Read the rest of this article at the Christian Science Monitor …

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.

Read the rest of this article at the Christian Science Monitor …

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.

Read the rest of this article at the Christian Science Monitor …

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.

Read the rest of this article at the Christian Science Monitor …

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.

Read the rest of this article at the Christian Science Monitor …

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.

Read the rest of this article at the Christian Science Monitor …