Privacy issues hit all branches of government at once

Apple vs. the FBI, the FCC's broadband privacy bid, and a security commission bill in Congress are all being weighed

By Matt Hamblen
March 16, 2016


In a rare confluence of events, all three branches of the federal government are weighing changes that would affect when and how personal data is accessed.

The approaches are somewhat contradictory: Some moves would protect citizen privacy, while others could result in more access by government agencies to records kept by businesses and smartphone users about personal information. Encryption technology is usually at the center of the discussions, with intelligence officials eager to find ways to detect communications on smartphones used by criminals and terrorists.

Various actions are taking place in the federal judiciary, before Congress, as well as the executive branch.

FCC and ISP privacy

In the latest proposal made last week, the Federal Communications Commission wants Internet service providers to receive customer permission before their personal data is shared for marketing and other purposes.

The FCC will debate the proposal at its March 31 meeting. The proposal quickly won an endorsement from nearly 60 privacy and digital rights groups, including Free Press.

Meanwhile, opponents also have emerged, including the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, which said the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's oversight of broadband providers already protects broadband customer privacy while balancing privacy with industry costs and innovations.

Both FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez appeared together at the CES trade show in January to urge tech companies to expand their efforts to protect consumer privacy.

Apple and the FBI

Also receiving big headlines is the FBI's attempt to force Apple to write new software that would override password protections on the iPhone of a mass shooter in last year's deadly San Bernardino, Calif., attacks.

Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym on Feb. 16  ordered Apple to comply, but the company is appealing the decision on constitutional and other legal grounds. A hearing on the appeal is set for Tuesday. Many experts expect the case will end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

A series of affidavits by both parties in the case have been filed almost daily. Last week, the FBI described how it tried to access content on the work-issued iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook.

Congressional action

Legislation expected to pass in Congress calls for creating a 16-member commission on security and technology challenges. The commission, drawn from a broad base of security and privacy advocates, would have a year to issue a final report.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), one of the commission's co-sponsors, said the group can "strike an appropriate balance that protects American's privacy, American security and American competitiveness."

A big issue for backers of the commission is ensuring that Congress not pass knee-jerk legislation seeking backdoors or other workarounds of encryption used on smartphones and other devices. The concern is that since many encryption apps are available from foreign companies out of reach of U.S. laws, any U.S. regulation would only hurt U.S.-based companies. Furthermore, terrorists could resort to using apps developed in other countries, or build their own.

Timing matters

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