Encryption leaves authorities 'not in a good place': Former US intelligence chief

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said there needs to be a form of encryption developed that protects privacy, but one that authorities can access.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

James Clapper at a Senate intelligence committee hearing in February. (Image: file photo)

James Clapper, Barack Obama's former director of National Intelligence, has said the issue of criminals and terrorists going dark by using end-to-end encrypted systems is causing issues in the United States.

"The so-called going dark phenomenon -- a situation that was dramatically accelerated by the Snowden revelations -- in our country, I don't think we're in a good place here," Clapper said at the National Press Club on Wednesday.

"I think there needs to be a very serious dialogue about giving criminals, terrorists, rapists, murderers, etcetera, a pass."

Clapper said he hopes technology giants will use the creativity and innovation that made the iPhone and turn it to a form of encryption that simultaneously protects privacy while allowing authorities to access its content, but he had no answers to offer himself.

"One of the approaches that might have promise, I don't know, would be circle back on a system of key escrow where not one party necessarily would have the keys to the kingdom from an encryption standpoint," he said.

"Where there might be three independent, separate, autonomous elements that would have to prove the provision of encryption in order to solve a crime or detect a terrorist attack, for example.

"We had some discussions about that in the waning days of the Obama Administration. I'm not a techie, but that appears to me to have some promise."

The former director of National Intelligence also said there is no single correct answer to the issues of whether intelligence agencies should disclose vulnerabilities in software to vendors, or use them to collect information.

In recent days, political leaders in the United Kingdom and Australia have called on social media companies and tech giants -- labelled by Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten as Big Internet -- to help provide access to encryption. It is an idea that Clapper is backing, particularly after a meeting with executives from Silicon Valley at the White House approximately 18 months ago.

"I was struck by the interest that the companies have in helping," he said. "I do think there is a role to play here in some screening and filtering of what appears in social media.

"I know this is a very sensitive, controversial issue, but in the same way that these companies very adroitly capitalise on the information that we make available to them and exploit it, it seems that that same ingenuity could be applied in a sensitive way to filtering out or at least identifying some of the more egregious material that appears on social media.

"I do think that as part of their social or municipal responsibility that they need to cooperate and if that means under some safeguarded way that they would have confidence in ... that law enforcement particularly, would be allowed access to encryption.

"I hear the argument about if you share once with one person and it's forever compromised -- I'm not sure I really buy into that."

Australian government likes encryption even if it causes problems for cops: MacGibbon

Talking to ABC radio on Wednesday morning, Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cybersecurity Alastair MacGibbon stepped away from some of the rhetoric used by Australian politicians this week.

"The Australian government -- in fact, all governments with an interest in the safety of the public -- like encryption. End-to-end encryption helps reduce criminality against individuals, against governments and against business," MacGibbon said.

"But there's no absolutes. Clearly, encryption causes problems if you're investigating criminals or terrorists."

MacGibbon dismissed the issue of intelligence agencies using encryption backdoors to access communication content, and instead said investigations might be interested in a user's metadata and working with industry to solve crimes.

"No one is talking about back doors here," he said. "But as a police officer you'd execute search warrants. From time to time we do expect our privacy to be breached, but most of us don't ever have that privacy breached."

"And we need to take that same logic into the online space. That means, from time to time, you'd expect a law enforcement agency to break in to a private communication or to something that happens online."

MacGibbon said that regardless of whether it is a bus or an internet service, the public expects that service providers do not allow criminals or terrorists to abuse the service.

"There's nothing extreme about that. That's just what we expect offline and we should have that same philosophy online."

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