USACM Members Testify Before Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

By David Bruggeman
December 2, 2014

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) met in Washington D.C. on November 12 to take testimony on privacy in the context of counterterrorism programs.  The board heard from four panels of experts, two of whom were USACM members testifying in their individual roles as privacy and technology researchers.  Video of the meeting is available through C-SPAN, and the Board is taking public comments until December 31.

USACM Chair Ed Felten of Princeton was on the first panel, titled “Defining Privacy Interests.”  Felten’s testimony focused on how changing data practices in both government and the private sector have affected considerations of privacy.  He highlighted the challenges in predicting the consequences of collecting data (including the mosaic effect – how the mixing of collected data can result in unintended and unforeseen outcomes), the increasing complexity of data handling systems, and the synergy between commercial and government data collection practices.  He concluded by emphasizing the need for the Board to ask probing technical questions along with policy and legal questions.

USACM member (and former Vice-Chair) Annie Antón of Georgia Tech was on the second panel, which focused on privacy interests in the context of counterterrorism, and the impact of technology.  Antón’s testimony discussed the need to avoid providing backdoors in technical system for law enforcement and/or intelligence purposes.  She favors strong encryption as a default for the greater security it provides, and objects to backdoors in part because they do not represent best practices in cybersecurity.  They can be exploited, and planned weaknesses undercut the efforts of the United States to produce top notch computing talent and innovation.

The other panels represented the private sector (and non-governmental organizations), and government officials responsible for implementing privacy controls in their agencies.  The tension between the need for transparency (and the trust it can engender) and the secret nature of counterintelligence was keenly felt in both panels.

This meeting, and the comments that are submitted, will inform the work of the PCLOB going forward, as it continues to review national security surveillance programs.