Monday, March 8, 2010

Privacy vs Security at RSA conference

Brian Prince of eWeek Europe reports that U.S. Cyber Defense experts agreed on two things: U.S. cyber security needs beefing up, and doing that while protecting privacy won't be easy. Former head of U.S. Homeland Security Michael Chertoff saw the situation as a balancing act:
“You don’t want necessarily to have the government literally sitting there and operating the internet and opening and closing doors because it’s not hard to imagine a situation like you have in other countries where someone makes a decision that the threat isn’t just an attack by a botnet but an attack on ideas the government doesn’t like. So the key is to build a system that allows a sharing of information that does put on critical infrastructure a responsibility to maintain itself…but preserves a certain gate between them and a certain amount of accountability so that the government can’t simply just roughshod over the privacy.”

That's an important statement - and one that very neatly sums up the difficulty of providing security while maintaining privacy. The rest of the panel discussion showed a real concern and understanding of the importance - and complexity - of maintaining privacy while ensuring security.

Chertoff was one of a three member panel. The other two members were Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center ( EPIC ), and former special advisor on Cyber Security for George W. Bush, Richard Clarke. Richard Clarke is now chairman of Good Harbor Consulting. To be honest, I was a little surprised at the attitude shown by Mr. Chertoff and Mr. Clark. Hearing Mr. Chertoff, co-author of the Patriot Act, talk about the importance of limiting governments ability to invade citizens online privacy was unexptected.

Of course, not everything they said was so pretty. Clark wants a system that is flexible enough that it isn't compromised when some companies don't keep up with the latest patches and malware protections. His idea? Have Tier 1 ISP's do deep packet inspection to detect illicit activity. This is just a liiiiiittle bit contradictory to Mr. Chertoffs statement above. Deep packet inspection would mean they see everything everybody does that goes through a Tier 1 ISP. A lot of traffic will never hit a Tier 1 ISP, but the fact that US citizens would be being treated as criminals with no evidence that they are would be a major constitutional problem. Of course, it should be a major constitutional problem with the nationwide phone tapping that's still going on, and we know how that went. Not surprising at all that Rotenberg saw a slippery slope, "If we go down this road you really have to be very careful because one rationale easily collapses into another."

It was encouraging that Clarke felt the U.S. government had discredited itself over the past ten years where privacy is concerned. He also felt that the agency best equipped to protect the country, both military and civilian, is the NSA. But in an amazing twist, he feels that the NSA is not the agency that should be protecting the private sector. The problem is, there isn't anyone looking out for the private sector:
“The problem is right now no one is defending the private sector,” he continued. “The theory of the Obama administration seems to be cyber-command defends the military, DHS (Department of Homeland Security) – which can’t do it yet – defends the .gov community, and the rest of us are on our own.”

As scary as that is, it's better than being watched by the NSA. And I'm happy that all three panel members seem to agree with that sentiment.