Privacy and Encryption Make Us Safer
By Jeff Benson
Last of two parts.
Sen. Ron Wyden is well aware that Washington isn’t monolithic.
The legislator works in a capital city stacked with regulatory bodies and law-enforcement agencies with their own agendas.
In today’s Digital Privacy News interview, the senior senator from Oregon discusses pushing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on shady data brokers, the debate over creating encryption backdoors for the FBI — and why government agencies shouldn’t be able to buy personal data they’d otherwise need a warrant to get.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Birthplace: Wichita, Kan.
Education: Stanford University (B.A.), University of Oregon (J.D.).
First Elected to Senate: 1996.
Key Committees: Finance (ranking member), Budget, Energy and Natural Resources, Intelligence.
U.S. House Service: 1981-1996.
Personal: Married, five children.
The Mind Your Own Business Act gives the FTC more power to act. You’ve also recently urged the agency to investigate AdTech industry companies that apparently are selling Americans’ data without consent. That seems to have been going on for years. Has the FTC been asleep at the wheel?
There have been periods, certainly over the years, where it has not been particularly active.
The reason I put together that bipartisan, bicameral letter to the Federal Trade Commission about data brokers is that I really wanted to launch this fresh effort that’s reigning in data brokers tracking Americans at protests and places of worship without their knowledge or consent.
The FTC now has the letter — and you do need legislation, which is the Mind Your Own Business Act, that gives the Federal Trade Commission the powers and teeth — backed up with consequences for senior executives, large companies — showing there’s an effective cop on the beat.
You also mentioned the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale bill. Government agencies have been buying shady information for some time. When did you become aware of this and become convinced that it required legislative action?
We had been following it for quite some time.
The brokers were always telling us they were going to step in … making promises.
“I’m leading the case to make sure we don’t turn back the clock and create government backdoors.”
And, then, somebody would go out in the streets — and, six months later, go buying people’s personal data.
We began to hear reports of it, investigated some of the key areas.
We said to the companies, “We expect this to stop.” They said they would. They didn’t. That’s why we’re introducing legislation.
That legislation is trying to close loopholes. Companies are good at finding new loopholes. How would the bill make sure government agencies don’t do this again?
The point is these government agencies always operate under the theory that legislators come and go and that they’re not going to have a particularly long attention span.
We’ve established this kind of track record that we think that this is outrageous: That you would, in effect, have this end-run on protection of people’s data, using credit cards to go around the Fourth Amendment.
As with most other things, what you need to do is establish that there are tough laws and then send the message that determines it’s going to be real — and not just honored in the breach rather than in the observance.
The FBI a few years ago tried to get Apple to create a backdoor so it could access encrypted messages. Are tech companies getting mixed messages from government agencies and legislators on what’s expected of them on privacy?
They aren’t getting any mixed messages from me!
I’m leading the case to make sure we don’t turn back the clock and create government backdoors.
“People are going to see that when you have those backdoors, the bad guys get access the same way the good guys get access.”
People are going to see that when you have those backdoors, the bad guys get access the same way the good guys get access to it.
Your last point, that was a really good one, that they’re getting mixed messages; they certainly aren’t getting them from us.
I’ve been accused of a lot of things, but giving mixed messages on encryption isn’t one of them.
Your track record is pretty consistent.
As I’ve said, these are complicated issues.
The debate was always: “Do you want security or liberty? That’s what encryption is all about.”
We said: “Hell no, that’s not what this debate is about. It’s about more safety versus less safety. And you get more safety with strong encryption.”
We’ve been pretty consistent on this for a long time.
“I’ve been accused of a lot of things, but giving mixed messages on encryption isn’t one of them.”
What are some of the entrenched interests, aside from tech companies themselves, lining up to work against privacy issues?
We’ll save that for another conversation. I can tell you, even based on what’s going on in the states, that it’s going to be a lobbyist full-employment program.
Jeff Benson is a Nevada writer.
Sources (some external links):
- Congress: Mind Your Own Business Act of 2019
- Wyden Senate Office: 7/31/20 Letter to the Federal Trade Commission
- Digital Privacy News: The Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale