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Encryption Technologies Central to Debate About Online Free Speech, Say CDT-Charles Koch Event Panelists



Screenshot from the first webinar of the series, on Monday

December 13, 2020 – In the kick-off session to a weeklong series about “The Future of Speech Online,” the past, present and future of cryptography was front and center.

Can users enjoy the protections of end-to-end encryption and also be able to “get” bad actors? The problem, according to Erica Portnoy, senior staff technologist at the Electric Frontier Foundation, is that our society can’t have both.

Portney, one of the speakers in Monday’s session of the series sponsored by the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Charles Koch Institute, said that as a developer, she saw a marked difference in how the term “end-to-end encryption” was used in the field versus in the policy arena.

The use of the term in the policy arena has created conflict, she said. As a technical term, end-to-end encryption referrs to the process of turning a message into a secret message by its original sender to be decoded only by the final recipient. The “ends” here are the two devices—the sender’s device and the receiver’s device—and the encryption ensures that no can intercept or leak information in the conversation because the only people with the code to decrypt the message are the two parties conversing.

But end-to-end encryption is rendered null when people want the protections encryption can provide while also wanting to scan messages for potential threats. The latter, called client-side scanning, refers to when someone, usually the provider of the messaging platform, scans the messages before they’re encrypted to check for contraband materials.

If it is determined that the message has this illicit content, the app may refuse to send the message, notify the recipient, or forward it to a third party, perhaps without the user’s knowledge.

While the messaging system would still technically remain intact since there was no interception of an encrypted message, client-side scanning challenges user privacy and system security.

Portnoy said that she preferred the term “secure messaging” to refer to the situation where only the sender and her intended recipient could read messages or otherwise analyze their contents.

Other perspectives stressed the possibility of collaboration between encryption researchers and law enforcement

Not all agreed that the conflict between security and privacy was irreconcilable. Klon Kitchen, director of the Center for Technology Policy at the Heritage Foundation, said he liked the way Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency, framed the issue. We can’t allow ourselves to think about this as a choice between security and speech.

Kitchen emphasized that America needs both encryption and security moving forward, and that there needs to be a level of good faith and prudence between the government and the security research community.

He also stressed that “in a modern world, securing nations means securing networks,” and as nations, we cannot operate independently of each other.

Nick Sullivan, head of research at Cloudflare, Inc. addressed the difficulty of creating systems and policies that work for all parties—consumers, industry groups, and the government. He cited the rapid deployment of https as an example of getting mass adoption of encrypted systems.

From a consumer perspective, with so many interfaces that seem to have nothing in common about policy implementation, it can be difficult to know how to navigate these issues, not to mention difficult to audit the platform’s policies, said Sullivan.

When asked what he felt the key points the public should know were, he said it makes the most sense to increase the incentive for groups developing secure technologies. He also suggested bringing the community together to standardize and pick one way to do a security feature, similar to how Signal is used in both WhatsApp and iMessage.

Hannah Quay-de la Vallee, senior technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, moderated this session.


Microsoft Executive Calls For Improved Information Sharing Between Governments and Companies

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



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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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.



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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DOJ Official Supports Mandatory Breach Reporting

Proposed legislation would make it mandatory for companies to report cyberattacks.



Richard Downing from the Senate judiciary committee last week

August 2, 2021—An official from the Department of Justice urged members of the Senate judiciary committee last week to proceed with legislation requiring companies to report ransomware attacks to federal agencies.

Richard Downing, deputy assistant attorney general of the criminal division within the department, told the committee studying cybersecurity during a hearing that such mandatory breach reporting legislation would aid in its defense against cyberattacks.

There is currently no federal law requiring such disclosures, but bipartisan Senate legislation co-sponsored by Senator Angus King, I-Maine, would change that. Titled Cyber Incident Notification Act of 2021, the bill was introduced last month.

This legislation would require all contractors, federal agencies, companies, and organizations critical to U.S national security to report all breaches of data to the Department of Homeland Securities’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within 24 hours.

The bill and discussions about it come in light of high-profile cyberattacks that have targeted software company SolarWinds and oil transport company Colonial Pipeline in the last several months. And the discussion isn’t expected to slowdown as more critical infrastructure is hooked up to the internet.

The Last week, the House energy committee approved a series of cyber bills that would improve telecom network security.  

Cyber threats becoming more bold

Downing noted that threat actors are becoming bolder and more sophisticated, and that the government must hasten efforts to thwart attacks and stay ahead of such malicious acts.

“Many actors now research their victims—identifying the victim’s net worth, the cost of a business interruption, and even the value of their cyber insurance policy—to extort as much money as possible,” Downing said during the hearing.

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