Intelligence community works to get beyond Snowden stigma

Top intelligence lawyer pledges more transparency, looks to repair frayed relations with technology companies following Snowden disclosures.

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The fallout from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's disclosures of widespread and covert government surveillance programs left a deep rift between the intelligence community and many leading technology companies, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

But does it have to be that way?

In remarks this week at the Brookings Institution, a top intelligence official offered a hopeful vision of government and tech working in common cause to protect national security, while at the same time developing and respecting meaningful safeguards for civil liberties and personal privacy.

"I hope that we'll be able to work together with industry to help us find better solutions to protect both privacy and national security," says Robert Litt, general counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

"One of the many ways in which Snowden's leaks have damaged national security is driving a wedge between government and providers and technology companies, so that some companies that formerly recognized that protecting our nation was a valuable and important public service they could perform, now feel compelled to stand in opposition," he adds. "I don't happen to think that's healthy, because I think that American companies have a huge amount to contribute to how we protect both privacy and national security."

[ Related: Picking a Fight Over NSA Surveillance in the Post-Snowden Era ]

The revelations of clandestine surveillance programs over the last year and a half have alienated many in the technology community. Leading providers have sued to win more authority to disclose information about the national security letters they receive requesting user information, and how they respond to them, an effort that aims to combat the perception that the government has unfettered access to the databases of firms like Google and Microsoft.

Litt's comments come a day after the ODNI released a report detailing reforms to some of the intelligence programs that have been at the center of the controversy, and providing an update on how the intelligence community has responded to a presidential directive issued a year ago calling for limitations on some data-collection activities.

Litt Defends Intelligence Community Programs While Pledging Reform

While he strongly defends the legitimacy of the current programs in place at the NSA and other intelligence organizations, Litt pledges that reforms will continue, and vow to declassify and publish more information, and "continue to institutionalize transparency" within the government community.

He also flatly rejects the notion that the government has any "back door" into the servers of tech firms, and defends the oversight mechanisms in place as a meaningful check on the operations of the intelligence community.

At the same time, Litt notes the importance of engaging with the public through forums such as his appearance this week at Brookings, where he acknowledged the negative perception the public has about the government's surveillance efforts. The technology dimension is particularly troubling.

"When people talk about technology and surveillance, they tend to talk about either how technology has enabled the intelligence community to do all sorts of scary things, or on the other hand how technology can protect us from all the scary things that the intelligence community can do," Litt says.

"There's a third role that technology can play, however, and that's to provide protections and restrictions on the national security apparatus that can provide assurance to Americans and people around the world that we are respecting the appropriate limits on intelligence activities while still protecting national security. This is where the genius and the capabilities of America's technology companies can provide us invaluable assistance," Litt says.

Litt is also appealing to companies in the tech sector to have some flexibility in the tools they provide users to protect their information. In particular, he warns of the dangers of irreversible encryption, echoing many other officials in the intelligence community -- and President Obama himself -- who have argued that strong, default encryption policies could allow critical threats to go undetected.

Again, Litt calls for balance, suggesting that encryption has a rightful place in the industry, but he urges companies to devise ways to accommodate reasonable national security efforts.

"Encryption is a critical tool to protect privacy, to facilitate commerce and to provide security, and the United States government supports its widespread use. At the same time, the widespread use of encryption that cannot be decrypted when we have the lawful authority to do so risks allowing criminals, terrorists, hackers and other threats to avoid detection," he says.

"I'm not a cryptographer, but I am an optimist," Litt adds. "I believe that if our businesses, our scientists and our academics put their mind to it, they will find a solution that does not compromise the integrity of encryption technology, but that enables both encryption to protect privacy and decryption under lawful authority to protect national security."

This story, "Intelligence community works to get beyond Snowden stigma" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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