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Modern field guide to security and privacy

Coalition aims to solve privacy v. national security debate

As the standoff between Apple and the US government over unlocking an iPhone intensifies, the Digital Equilibrium Project is setting out to find the right balance between consumer privacy safeguards and national security interests. 

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    The Apple logo seen behind the clock at Grand Central Terminal in the Manhattan on Feb. 21.
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Amid an intensifying nationwide debate over privacy rights, a coalition of technology experts, privacy advocates, and former government officials is setting out to forge a consensus between Washington and the tech sector when it comes balancing consumer security and national security interests.

The Digital Equilibrium Project, announced Tuesday, brings together 15 experts with the aim of finding a framework that protects privacy while also giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies the ability to access the communications of suspected criminals and terrorists. 

The announcement comes as privacy issues have reached the national spotlight since Apple is refusing to help the FBI access an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters. The Silicon Valley tech giant claims that aiding federal agents in this case would irrevocably weaken security for all of its customers

Recommended: Read DOJ's motion to compel Apple to crack the San Bernardino iPhone

While privacy advocates, civil liberties groups, and tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter support Apple's stance, the public appears to be siding the FBI. In a Pew Research Poll, 51 percent of respondents said that Apple should help unlock the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.

"We need to get to an equilibrium about the needs of the state versus the needs of an individual," said Nuala O'Connor, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a tech advocacy group. "The Apple-FBI case crystallizes that there are very compelling national security concerns at stake. The decisions being made now are going to have a huge impact in our lives."

The group says it plans to release guidelines for the government and private sector to cooperate on policies that support both consumer privacy rights and national security needs at next month's RSA Conference in San Francisco. So far, the group has received input from retired government officials including a former National Security Agency director and Homeland Security secretary as well as senior technology executives and digital privacy advocates.

"Today we're wrestling with the conflicts between privacy and security as a series of disparate events," Michael Chertoff, former secretary of Homeland Security and executive chairman of the Chertoff Group, a Washington consulting firm, said in a statement. "A framework of guiding principles, norms of behavior and eventually laws and policies in this area will not only protect individual privacy, it will enable law enforcement and other government agencies to act with more speed, clarity, and context in the pursuit of their missions."

Art Coviello, the former executive chairman of RSA, a pioneering encryption company, began organizing the project last year, long before the standoff between Apple and federal investigators over the iPhone recovered after the California terrorist attacks. But by then the privacy debate was simmering because FBI officials had started pressuring the tech industry to develop ways its investigators could access encrypted communications when they had a warrant.

"The standoff between Apple and the US Government is a symptom of a larger issue," said Mr. Coviello in a statement. "The speed of change in technology has far outrun the ability of our current laws, policies, and social constructs to keep up." 

His Digital Equilibrium Project is planning to convene a gathering of experts, government officials, law enforcement, and tech executives to begin hammering out a new privacy framework this summer.

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