Can Obama Balance Cyber Threats and Personal Privacy?

US President Barack Obama speaks about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on April 1, 2014. Hundreds of thousands of Americans rushed to buy Obama's new health insurance plans on March 31, prompting a victory lap from a White House that paid a steep political price for its greatest achievement. The scramble to sign up under Obama's health care law at the end of a six-month enrollment window caused website glitches and long lines at on-the-spot enrollment centers. (Photo by: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

We must get this right. History has shown us that sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences. We still live in a world where all people are not treated equally, too many people do not feel free to practice their religion or express their opinion or love who they chose. A world in which that information can mean life or death,” said Apple’s Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook at the February White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection. “If those of in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money, we risk our way of life.”

Cook, the only tech CEO to appear at the meeting, stressed that privacy and personal information protection should top the list of Democratic priorities. By comparison, the heads of other prominent technology companies, like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, declined inventions, which could be a sign that the industry heavyweights are discouraged by the slow pace of reform to the government surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. At the end of 2013, Apple and a number of other major tech companies formed the Reform Government Surveillance Coalition, with aim of convincing Obama and Congress to place limits on government surveillance programs and data collection.

In a speech following Cook’s talk, President Barack Obama offered a counter argument. The president launched into the national security concerns that technology’s progression and introduced to America as a nation. “It’s one of the great paradoxes of our time that the very technologies that empower us to do great good can also be used to undermine us, and inflict great harm,” Obama said. “The same information technologies that help make our military the most advanced in the world are targeted by hackers from China, Russia, who go after our defense contractors and systems that are built for our troops. The same social media we use in government to advocate for democracy and human rights around the world can also be used by terrorist to spread hateful ideologies. So these cyber-threats are a challenge to our national security.”

Despite the differing emphasis, both agreed on one thing: “We have to work together like never before,” Obama said. And unlike other agreed upon topics of importance, like immigration, cybersecurity is more likely to be an issue with common ground between Republicans and Democrats that have seen so much gridlock last year. Cook, for his part, discussed the need for federal government, Congress, private companies, and others, to work together to protect themselves. The concept is an appropriate one to hit on given Obama’s Executive Order, released Thursday, outlined a new system of shared information between and within the private sector and government.

The executive order describes a number of systems for “sharing and analysis” of threats, security, and the best way to handle and respond to various types of risks. There were considerations in listed for “streamline[ing] private sector companies’ ability to access classified cybersecurity threat information” in balance with the communication and sharing necessary between the government and the private sector. “It will encourage more companies and industries to set up organizations — hubs — so you can share information with each other. It will call for a common set of standards, including protections for privacy and civil liberties, so that government can share threat information with these hubs more easily,” said Obama of his executive order.

Given the year America has had with scandal over government’s access to private company data, it’s unsurprising that there is a section within the order fact sheet for “strong protections for privacy and civil liberties” for all “information sharing enabled by this new framework.” With tech companies butting heads over governmental involvement in their customers’ information earlier this past year, it’s clear any cooperation with the government will require companies to cover their end of privacy concerns adequately, or risk business loss. While Cook’s dismissal of the money issue is ideological and inspiring, monetary factors are more comfortingly secure and reliable.

There is also a provision for “future legislation,” referencing past legislative proposals made by the Administration. One made in January 2015 was specifically mentioned, which included efforts toward “modernizing law enforcement authorities to combat cyber crime,” similar information sharing proposals to those seen in the order, and measures for improving the reporting of data breaches from companies. Alongside the executive order is the announcement from Lisa Monaco, Obama’s adviser on homeland security and counter-terrorism.

Monaco announced that an agency called the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center would be created to deal with help evaluate cyber threats. It’s clear to most, given the past year’s attacks from North Korea on Sony, China’s economic espionage, and the whole box of controversy unpacked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s document publication, that cybersecurity is an appropriate and necessary area of focus. While there will need to be careful consideration of steps as they progress, it’s an encouraging allocation of political effort and collaboration.

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