Recently, the Obama administration has been of two minds where privacy rights are concerned. On one hand, you have an administration that vowed to veto CISPA and mandated open data for government websites. On the other hand, you have an increasingly out-of-control Department of Justice on a fishing expedition at AP and demanding legislation to let the FBI wiretap private, encrypted communications and levy fines if a company fails to comply.
To paraphrase Eminem, will the real Barack Obama, please stand up, please stand up.
As it turned out, we never needed to count on Obama’s veto to knock out CISPA (the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act) because the US Senate killed the bill — for this year at least.
As for the Open Data order, Alexander B. Howard (who is the guy to read if you want to know about this stuff) wrote in Slate that it was “The Best Thing Obama’s Done This Month.” When you give everyone open access to government data, good things tend to follow. “This is perhaps the biggest step forward to date in making government data — that information your tax dollars pay for — accessible for citizens, entrepreneurs, politicians, and others,” Howard wrote.
The president could have easily made up some national security reasons why sharing this information was dangerous, but instead he chose sharing over information hoarding and paranoia.
Contrast that with the news earlier this week that Obama’s Justice Department seized two months (yes, two months!) worth of phone records from the Associated Press under the guise of national security concerns related to a story AP had written last year about a thwarted Al Qaeda plot in Yemen. The FBI called it an investigation related to national security. I call it a fishing expedition and completely despicable, an incident that exposes the worst side of this administration.
But as authoritarian as that move was, it pales next to another story. As Wayne Rash reported on eWeek, the FBI has put forward an even more insidious proposal, one that would ban encrypted messaging. I don’t know about you, but if the government can’t read my messages, that makes me happy, because if they can’t crack the encryption, that means nobody else can either. And therein lies the problem — for the government at least.
Now the FBI and other government entities have gotten the bright idea to ban encrypted messages, and, in the name of national security, the government wants the power to not only force companies to do away with encryption, but to fine them — and continue fining them — unless they comply.
There’s a great way to stifle technological innovation, wreak economic havoc, possibly bankrupt some perfectly good businesses, and discourage cyber security research. Confused about where exactly this administration stands on privacy? You have every right to be. We have an administration that clearly defends privacy on one end, yet tries to destroy the notion on the other. And if you’re a CIO trying to make sense of this from a business strategy perspective, you’re really in the lurch. You don’t want to do anything that may run you afoul of the federal government, yet it’s hard to create policy when the administration is sending such mixed signals about privacy and security issues.
That’s why you may be right there with the rest of us trying to figure out exactly where this administration stands on these important issues and watching as it moves rapidly between these two extremes.