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Lawmakers, Prosecutors and Big Tech Companies Spar at Senate Hearing Over Unlocking Encryption

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Photo of Senate hearing by Masha Abarinova

WASHINGTON, December 11, 2019 – Lawmakers remain concerned about law enforcement’s inability to access highly encrypted devices for investigations. Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing questioned some representatives from big tech on the matter.

This isn’t going to be a world where social media is a haven for child abusers and other criminals, said Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Big tech can be either the problem or the solution to this dilemma, but they need to take action on encryption. Otherwise, Graham said, these companies face repercussions from Congress.

When a crime is committed, said Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., it is imperative that these devices be opened. The tech industry has a responsibility to respond to law enforcement’s concerns, she said, and that determines the degree of congressional action.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., inquired about how encrypted information is affected under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Obtaining this information is not only about deterring hackers or foreign actors, he said, but it is about the government protecting children.

Because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., big tech uniquely enjoys immunity from legal action. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., added that these companies seem to profit off encryption, yet they are unwilling to take responsibility for the negative effects they might incur.

Representatives from tech companies included Erik Neuenschwander, manager of user privacy at Apple, and Jay Sullivan, product management director for privacy and integrity at Facebook’s Messenger. They emphasized that their respective companies are actively working to ensure safety and security across devices.

Encryption is one of the most important mechanisms a nation has in order to safeguard an increasingly interconnected future, Neuenschwander said. Currently, Apple doesn’t have the ability to retrieve encrypted information off a device. However, he said, that means malicious actors also do not have access to that personal data.

Neuenschwander also added that Apple works closely with law enforcement and government agencies, receiving thousands of requests. Apple’s team has also trained law enforcement officers in the U.S. and around the world on its security processes.

Most Facebook’s methods to combat malicious actors, Sullivan said, are behavioral and based off social interaction. Facebook does not sell or share minors’ data to third parties, and Facebook does not use private messages for targeted ads or other algorithms, he said.

End-to-end encryption is the best technology available to make messages safe and secure, Sullivan continued. If the United States rolls back its support for privacy and encryption, foreign application providers will fill that vacuum to provide the privacy and security that people demand.

Tech companies have no external incentive to mandate the regulation of encrypted devices, said Prof. Matt Tait, cyber security fellow at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Encryption hinders law enforcement in three ways: device searches, which are impacted by a user passcode, traditional wiretaps, which are impacted by end-to-end communications and cyber tips, where companies can alert law enforcement of known child abuse material.

Options exist for conducting wiretaps and retaining cyber tips without altering encryption, Tait said. Only device encryption is amenable to a “front door” access mechanism.

New York City District Attorney Cyrus Vance was also on the panel, and he reiterated that law enforcement has lost functionality due to encrypted devices.

Apple and Google have engineered their phones to no longer have the capacity to be unlocked without encryption, he said. Vance said officers can only access about half of the encrypted phones that come into the DA’s office.

Encrypted material should not go beyond the law when a judge signs a search warrant, Vance said. For their own private business interests, the Fourth Amendment grants a right to not only privacy but to anonymity.

Vance emphasized that law enforcement officials having access to the cloud is not a suitable substitute for lawful access to a device. The cloud only stores data that has been saved. Moreover, a user can opt not to backup particular data to the cloud. The device itself, he said, contains the most critical evidence.

Expert Opinion

Jonathan Marashlian: The Legal Landscape Emerging for Robocalls Under the TRACED Act

The biggest risk is likely to come through enforcement actions by state attorneys general and civil litigation, says Marashlian.

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Jonathan Marashlian, Managing Partner of Marashlian & Donahue, LLC, The CommLaw Group, is the author of this Expert Opinion

Requirements for voice service providers emerging from the TRACED Act and the Federal Communications Commission orders that followed have changed the risks and threats to voice service providers.

Voice service providers have just passed some major milestones: Certifying SHAKEN and/or robocall mitigation in the FCC database and refusing calls from unregistered upstream providers. Does that mean it is time to kick back and relax?

Not at all. The legal landscape in the new STIR/SHAKEN era is much larger and more diverse than mere technical compliance with FCC requirements.

We are already seeing clear and unmistakable signs that compliance with the bare minimum requirements established by the FCC—implementing STIR/SHAKEN and robocall mitigation plan procedures—is insufficient to mitigate the myriad of business risks arising from the government onslaught against the scourge of illegal robocalling.

Reading the tea leaves, the biggest risk or threat is likely to come through enforcement actions by state attorneys general and civil litigation initiated by private parties. Wherever the legal landscape provides the opportunity to recover damages, class action plaintiff’s lawyers and attorneys for large enterprise consumers of voice services, such as call center operators, are certain to seize upon those opportunities.

‘Know your Customer’ rules come to the telecom industry

We anticipate that questions around the meaning of and extent to which the “Know Your Customer” requirements apply in different contexts will ultimately be answered through litigation and enforcement, and less so through the FCC regulatory rulemaking process. Questions around damages and who is or can be held responsible for originating, passing, or terminating illegal robocalls are also going to be fleshed out by regulatory enforcement and private litigation.

Perhaps the most significant risk, even more so than the FCC, are the federal and state consumer protection laws that are being developed around robocall mitigation. Starting with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), where the FTC’s strict “known or should have known” standard is applied to hold voice service providers accountable for illegal robocallers using their networks.

Many service providers and telecom consultants pore over FCC regulations to try and understand the requirements. Is that sufficient? Are there other things they need to worry about?

FCC regulations are a good starting point and, telecommunications providers should stay abreast of updated regulations and releases. However, FCC regulatory compliance alone may not be enough to defend an action if provider’s face the FTC and state attorneys general’s “known or should have known” standard or the creative, evolving litigation strategy of the plaintiff’s bar.

Marriott filed a lawsuit in federal court against unknown perpetrators, “John Does,” who made illegal robocalls misusing Marriott’s name. Why would Marriott do that? What’s the point?

This is sheer speculation, but as often turns out, the actual perpetrators who harmed Marriott likely will be insolvent or outside the reach of Marriott. By using “John Does,” Marriott preserves its ability to amend its complaint to implead carriers and providers that carried or transported the fraudulent traffic.

Marriott could rely on the FTC’s “known or should have known” standard to show underlying carriers are the “John Does” that profited from bad actors (now insolvent or extra-judicial). It’s unlikely Marriott would commence this litigation without a strategy outside positive public relations for pursuing bad actions; rather, the “John Does” will likely turn out to be carriers of bad traffic who settle Marriott’s claims.

The Call Authentication Trust Anchor Working Group issued Caller ID Authentication Best Practices, which the FCC published and endorsed as voluntary measures. Then the Fourth Report and Order on Robocall Prevention mandated affirmative obligations to prevent service providers from originating robocalls. It seems like momentum is building toward holding service providers responsible for knowing their customers and the nature of their calls.

Based on recent trends, there is certainly momentum in that direction and Know Your Customer will likely continue to grow in importance. Thus, providers should ensure they have a good KYC policy in place, particularly as new risks emerge, and scrutiny grows. However, as discussed above, this appears largely driven by the FTC and state attorney general actions.

Of note, the Industry Traceback Group in July 2021 published a Policies and Procedures booklet with a best practices section. All voice service providers should review the booklet, and particularly the best practices. Accountability will keep mounting and the weakest link—the weakest KYC policy—will be the first to break, and that provider will be accountable and “holding the bag.”

Jonathan Marashlian is Managing Partner of Marashlian & Donahue, PLLC, The CommLaw Group, a full-service telecom law firm located in the Washington, D.C., area catering to businesses operating in and around the dynamic and diverse communications and information technology industries. Their clients include providers of VoIP, wireless and traditional telecommunications services, SaaS-based and cloud computing technologists and Internet-of-Things application and network vendors. The CommLaw Group has formed a Robocall Mitigation Response Team to help clients achieve the level of compliance needed to avoid the emerging threats of litigation and regulatory enforcement. Jonathan S. Marashlian may be reached by email or by phone at 703-714-1313.

A prior version of this piece was published on October 6, 2021, on TransNexus. This lightly-edited Expert Opinion is reprinted with permission. Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Cybersecurity

Microsoft Executive Calls For Improved Information Sharing Between Governments and Companies

Brad Smith said information sharing is critical for preventative measures against cyberattacks.

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Microsoft Vice Chair Brad Smith

WASHINGTON, September 20, 2021—Microsoft Vice Chair Brad Smith called for improved information sharing between countries to prevent cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.

While participating in a Washington Post Live discussion on September 20, Smith pointed toward certain sectors and aspects of society that should be protected from cyberwarfare. He specifically mentioned that a country’s digital supply chains, healthcare systems, and electoral processes should be considered off limits.

“I think the sobering fact of life is that unfortunately the world typically comes together to do what needs to be done only after it has experienced some kind [disaster],” he said.

“If we said we won’t harm civilians in a time of war, why should we for a moment, tolerate this kind of harm to civilians in what is supposed to be a time of peace?” Smith likened the SolarWinds attack to tampering with a blood supply to harm recipients.

A webinar in June hosted by the Stimson Center heard that a cybersecurity framework between countries is key to combatting cyberattacks.

Information sharing with private companies

In addition to reaffirming a commitment to not cause civilian harm, Smith also called for improving coordination and information sharing between private companies and stated that these efforts are enhanced by government leadership.

“I think any day when we’re sitting down and talking about how we can collaborate more closely among companies, that’s probably a good day.” Smith lauded efforts by the Biden Administration to facilitate information sharing between tech companies to prevent further attacks like the one SolarWinds suffered, “We are going to need a government that can work as a single well-coordinated team and the team is going to need to include participants in an appropriate way from the private sector as well. I’m hopeful, encouraged and I would dare say even optimistic.”

Last month, Comcast Cable’s chief product and information officer Noopur Davis said the private sector is falling behind on information sharing during cyberattacks, and that companies in the tech industry are reevaluating their strategies and how they share information to prevent such acts. Some have noted that companies are still not prioritizing cybersecurity.

Senator Angus King, I-Maine, has even called for new rules requiring companies to disclose when they’ve been breached in a hack.

Shortage of cybersecurity workforce

Smith noted, however, that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. He described a “substantial shortage” of cybersecurity professionals, which he stated is one of the reasons organizations are not able to move quickly enough to keep pace with bad actors and implement best practices.

“There is a real opportunity for us to work together for community colleges to do more [and] for businesses to do more to train their people,” he said.

Overall, Smith stated that things are moving in the right direction but emphasized that the international community—governments and otherwise—need to establish better methods of federating data that is secure from bad actors but accessible to the necessary parties.

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Cybersecurity

Private Sector Falling Behind on Information Sharing During Cyberattacks, Says Comcast Rep

Comcast’s Noopur Davis says cyber attackers share information better than the private sector.

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Noopur Davis, Chief Product and Information Officer at Comcast Cable.

ASPEN, Colorado, August 23 — In the wake of an influx of ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure and cyberattacks on private carriers, entities across the technology industry are revaluating their strategies and how they share information to prevent such acts.

T-Mobile announced on August 15 that as many as 50 million consumers had their private data compromised during a data breach. Days later, on August 17, as part of Technology Policy Institute’s 2021 Aspen Forum, Noopur Davis, Chief Product and Information Officer at Comcast Cable, sat down for a fireside chat to discuss what the industry was doing to address this event and events like it.

Join in Broadband Breakfast Live Online’s Discussion on “Cybersecurity: Reviewing the Biden Administration’s Executive Order,” on Wednesday, August 25, 2021, at 12 Noon ET.

When Davis was asked how she felt about the current state of cybersecurity, she said it was okay, but that the telecom community at large would have to do more.

She referenced the mean time of comfort—that is, the average duration between the time that a service becomes connected to the internet and when it is targeted by bad actors. While in the early days of the internet cybersecurity experts could expect to have significant mean times of comfort, she stated that this is no longer the case.

“The second you connect [to the internet] you are attacked,” she said.

As soon as a successful breach is recognized, Davis explained that the target companies begin to revaluate their “TTP,” or tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Information sharing is crucial

Though one company may find a remedy to their breach, other companies may remain vulnerable. To combat this, Davis said that it is critical for companies to share information quickly with their counterparts, but she indicated that this is a race that the private sector is currently losing.

“[Attackers] share information better than [the private industry does].”

She went further, revealing that there is now a sophisticated market for malware as a service, where various platforms publish reviews for their products and services and even offer tech support to those struggling to get the most out of their purchases.

Growing market for hacking tools

She pointed to the Colonial Pipeline attack as an example where hackers did not even create the malware themselves—they just purchased it from a provider online. She explained that this marketplace has significantly lowered the barriers of entry and deskilled the activity for would be attackers, and that theoretically anyone could engage in such nefarious acts today.

Though Davis was in favor of collaboration between companies to address these attacks, she made it clear that this would not mean that responses and capabilities would become standardized, and that every company would maintain their own unique strategies to ensure that their services and data remain uncompromised.

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