A panel of experts need to study and report to the public on the legal and technical alternatives in security and privacy, and engineers need a seat at that table.
The dispute between Apple and the FBI has created an opportunity for security experts in the government and industry to gather around a table. At this stage, all sides need such a group to define the technology and policy issues clearly.
There are a lot of moving parts in both the technological and social aspects of security and privacy. Understanding exactly how companies implement security on client devices and cloud services is as important as refining the line in the digital era between individual rights and public safety.
The current debate has been widespread and lively though, as usual in a democracy, not always focused or informed. For example, a lot of highly prioritized bits have been fired up to argue just whose side Bill Gates is on — a question that really doesn’t matter.
While the press and public debate these issues, we also crave leadership. Experts in technology and law from all sides of the spectrum would do this debate a great service if they would lay out the terrain and the trade-offs in a way the general public can digest them.
In public statements to date, both Apple CEO Tim Cook and FBI Director James Comey suggested forming a commission to lay out the issues. Such an effort would be the best way to move the debate forward in the public square. It could also give everyone from engineers to lawyers deeper insights into their next steps.
I’m no expert in security or the law. However, it seems clear to me there is a widening gulf in front of us.
Private companies are responsible to build the most secure products possible. Governments are charged to guard their citizens’ safety and freedom. Today we are moving toward an extreme in which the two sides are adversaries. It’s time to take a step toward the center of collaboration.
A congressional hearing scheduled for March 1 is a good step in the right direction. However, it lacks hands-on technical experts. Apple’s general counsel and a security policy expert “trained as a theoretical computer scientist” will testify along with FBI Director Comey and the district attorney of New York County.
No doubt they will go a long way in scoping out the legal aspects of the issues. But we also need a forum where top technical minds from the government and industry hash out the issues and present alternatives in a way the public can understand them. Engineers need a seat at the table.
—Rick Merritt is Silicon Valley Bureau Chief and covers Internet of Things and wireless & networking for EE Times.