Can Silicon Valley and Fort Meade work out their differences?

One year ago, President Obama spoke to the world about American surveillance policies. Since that time new information about intelligence-gathering activities that frame the controversy have come to light. Legislators have also struggled to write new laws that balance security and privacy concerns. The administration has worked diligently over the past year to carry out the president’s orders that he outlined in his speech. Recently Robert Litt, the General Counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, came to the Brookings Institution to discuss the programs and ongoing transparency efforts.

U.S. intelligence community surveillance one year after President Obama’s address

Litt addressed many issues during his speech, including the relationship between the U.S. government and the tech sector. Tech firms are stuck between the legitimate needs of the federal government to gather intelligence and their customers’ desire for privacy. Both to promote general security and to demonstrate a commitment to privacy, some tech firms have discussed wider use of encryption. American companies have suffered unknown losses due to disclosures about government surveillance activities.

Encryption and the private sector

National security officials worry that encryption could make surveillance for lawful purposes too difficult. The president recently commented, “If we get into a situation in which the technologies do not allow us at all to track someone that we’re confident is a terrorist, that’s a problem.” On this particular issue Litt was hopeful that a technological solution that protects privacy and security is possible. He explained his belief that industry leaders will develop a technology “that enables both encryption to protect privacy and decryption under lawful authority to protect national security.”

New government transparency efforts also apply to the private sector. Many companies are forced to comply with government surveillance efforts. They are also frustrated about their inability to disclose these activities to their customers. Addressing this issue, Litt commented that the government is “taking steps to limit the length of time that secrecy can be imposed on recipients of national security letters.” The government has also allowed tech firms to release aggregate information about the records they provide to government agencies. The hope is that such efforts will clear up misconceptions about the programs.

Balancing the privacy concerns of tech firms with national security interests will remain an enduring challenge. Mobile technologies and social networking platforms evolve quickly. This debate will return every time a new technology emerges and responsible transparency will be especially important in these rapidly changing areas.