Cybereye | Obama's opportunity

Commentary: The incoming Obama administration has an opportunity to restore privacy safeguards in the government’s use of information technology.

The past eight years have seen a steady erosion of the safeguards that protect U.S. citizens from the prying eyes of their government. The incoming Obama administration will have the opportunity to correct that, balancing privacy with security in a way the current administration has not.

“The Bush presidency consistently took a strong anti-privacy position” in which claims of national security trumped all other considerations, said Paul Kocher, president and chief scientist of Cryptography Research.

The Bush administration’s primary interest in information technology has been in using it to gather information, with the wholesale tapping of major telecommunications networks and the proliferation of databases that detail individuals’ activities in the real and cyber worlds. There have been some improvements in cybersecurity under the Federal Information Security Management Act and several mandates for agencies, but the approach largely has been piecemeal. The administration established a comprehensive cyber initiative only in the last year. One major national security initiative, the Real ID Act, requires the creation of interconnected databases of personal information on nearly every American without any significant provisions for securing the data.

President-elect Barack Obama has signaled his intention to make cybersecurity a priority with his proposal to create a federal chief technology officer and to put the direction of IT security in the White House. In focusing on securing the digital portion of our critical infrastructure, he will have to make decisions on how far those resources should be protected, not only from outside attacks but also from domestic intelligence operations.

“There will be some complicated issues being debated,” Kocher said.

The government’s simplistic approach to privacy thus far in the Information Age has been that you don’t need it: If you have nothing to hide, you have no reason to be worried about agents looking into your correspondence and activities.

Many people disagree with this. They would argue that a breach of privacy still is a breach of privacy, even when it is the government that holds the information.

Obama’s early selections for his Cabinet and advisers show a promising diversity of points of view, incorporating Republicans and Democrats, insiders and outsiders, and those who are as likely to take a hard-line stance on national security as those likely to come down on the side of stronger privacy safeguards.

This could be a good time to bring U.S. policy more into line with those of the European community, which puts greater restrictions on access to and use of personal information. In addition to strengthening privacy safeguards, this could have the added benefit of strengthening international cooperation in combating cyber crime. Harmonizing policies on privacy and security could make it easier for investigators in different countries to work together in tracking down illegal online activities.

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