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Senator Wyden recalls SOPA fight in bid to defeat encryption-weakening efforts

It's not privacy versus security; it's security versus more security

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has put out a call to arms to digital rights activists, asking them to join in a SOPA-style effort to defeat upcoming efforts to weaken encryption.

In a wide-ranging speech that covered J Edgar Hoover, Miranda Rights, the Founding Fathers and the Amazon Echo, the Oregon Senator warned that despite the recent decision by the FBI to drop its case against Apple, "as sure as night follows day," the issue is going to return and it will be necessary to fight legislative efforts to reduce the effectiveness of encryption.

"I will block any plan that would weaken strong encryption," he told the RightsCon conference in San Francisco.

"The expected legislation will be a lose-lose for all of us: less security and less liberty."

He also railed against the notion that the current debate over technology and encryption was a privacy versus security debate, arguing that it is more "security versus more security."

Instead, Wyden said, he wanted to refocus the debate, and called for "a new compact for security and liberty in the digital age."

That compact comprised four main points:

  1. End the campaign against strong encryption, in part by helping get his Secure Data Act through Congress, which would prohibit the government from forcing companies to undermine their products' security.
  2. Extend protections for individuals on the data that they share with private corporations. Currently, the law assumes that if you share any information with a third party, you are effectively making it public. "That is just plain wrong!" he exclaimed.
  3. Set a new schedule of Congressional hearings into surveillance laws and their impact on privacy. "Right now, we have about a half-hour a year to talk about this," he argued. "We've got to have real transparency here."
  4. And lastly, he implored attendees to keep an eye out for attempts to undermine existing rights, giving as an example a proposed change to the law that may allow the federal authorities to access an unlimited number of companies with a single warrant. "It will go into law later this year unless we block it," he said.

There are challenges, he noted – and key among them is the ability to explain the situation to the public. "We depend on people like you to spell out the dangers to the rest of society," he argued.

Today's threats to privacy "are unlike anything we've seen before," he noted, arguing that the capabilities of government surveillance are at "an all-time high" and that "technology has caught up with George Orwell's imagination."


Fortunately, he said, the directors of the FBI and the NSA don't get to write the law, thanks to the Founding Fathers' decision to include checks and balances in the US Constitution.

As to law enforcement's arguments about people "going dark" and surveillance information being lost, Wyden referenced the Supreme Court decision 50 years ago in Miranda versus Arizona that led to the famous "Miranda rights" that the police are obliged to read out to people when they are arrested.

At the time, Wyden noted, that decision was hailed as "the end of the effective use of confessions." He noted that leading politicians, including Richard Nixon, said it was a catastrophe for crime fighting, and that some argued the Constitution be amended to roll it back.

In the end, law enforcement adapted, Wyden argued, and they will do so again with strong encryption.

As for those who buy the line that "if you've done nothing" and you "don't care if the government is listening in to your Amazon Echo," he recalled the era of J Edgar Hoover and his wide-ranging surveillance of groups he deemed unsuitable. "I wonder what political and social movements we might never have heard of if J Edgar Hoover had access to all the technology available today," he noted.

Before heading off, Wyden regaled attendees with how 10 million Americans had come together to prevent the SOPA and PIPA legislation from being enacted back in 2012. "We can win this fight for security and liberty," he said in soaring rhetoric, "We did it once, we can do it again!" ®

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