Just as the dust began to settle from the widely publicized Apple-FBI showdown, a number of events reinvigorated the intense public debate on the balance between civil liberties and the power of the United States government.
In April, Microsoft filed suit against the Department of Justice over the government’s frequent use of secret demands for user data. Microsoft’s lawsuit follows the release of a draft Senate bill, which would require technology companies to hand over user data to law enforcement agencies with a court order.
Despite the growing trend of companies such as WhatsApp choosing to encrypt all data on their platform, the Compliance With Court Orders Act of 2016 would effectively force technology companies to weaken their own security measures in an attempt to expedite criminal investigations. And circling back to the Apple-FBI debate, both parties appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month to testify on encryption technology and law enforcement activities.
From Analog To Digital: Changing Expectations
It makes sense that technology companies would find themselves at the center of this discussion. Increasingly, our most personal information is held in places far from our physical reach. Where we once stored sensitive documents in filing cabinets under our control, we now entrust that same information to companies storing it in the cloud. And where we were once the recipients of search warrants for our information, government agencies can now turn to the service providers directly, often without our knowledge.
The evolution of digital technology has fundamentally changed how personal information is acquired and accessed; it provides a speed and level of availability that just wasn’t possible in the analog world. Yet we’re still relying on old legal processes to govern these new technologies, and as a result, we’re seeing the power imbalance between individual citizens and their government become even more pronounced.
Given the technology changes we’ve embraced, how can our existing expectations of privacy be met?
Creating Meaningful Transparency
This question prompts an important discussion on government access to personal data, and the ways in which technology companies can, and do, stand up for their users. One helpful tool for bringing this debate center stage is the publication of transparency reports. But simply publishing a transparency report isn’t necessarily enough.
“Transparency is meaningless without underlying company practices and internal processes that are substantive and consistently followed.” That word of caution comes from privacy attorney and BlurryEdge Strategies founder Lauren Gelman, who works with Inflection (the company I work for) on privacy issues.
Clear law enforcement guidelines are one way for companies to document their policies. They also help people understand how companies may share information with government agencies. Together, these documents help drive a more productive discussion about the appropriate use and limits of law enforcement authority.
Ultimately, transparency reports should move the needle from talk to action. We’ve seen this manifest most clearly in Microsoft’s recent lawsuit against the Department of Justice. And looking to the long term, this is precisely the kind of action that may embolden other companies to stand up alongside those already challenging the status quo.
Reason For Hope And A Call to Action
People trust more and more aspects of their personal lives to technology companies and we, collectively, must set the bar higher. Technology is changing rapidly, and while social norms and legal mechanisms will inevitably take time to catch up, we have an ethical responsibility to bring back some accountability.
There’s cause to be optimistic about recent efforts to recalibrate the balance between personal privacy and government power. At Inflection, we’re inspired by the rise in transparency reporting, the pushback against overreaching government requests shown by companies like Apple, and the proactive steps toward legal reform brought on by Microsoft.
Transparency reports alone won’t fix everything, but they represent a commitment to the public and exemplify one of the ways Inflection works to restore trust in the digital age.
This is a long-term, continued effort for Inflection: We’re promoting a culture of transparency beyond law enforcement requests, to issues that affect our customers, our employees, our business, and the society we live in.