February was full of tech storylines involving government decisions and regulations. Major players in the industry were continually interacting with Federal Organizations like the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and the Supreme Court to find solutions to issues that involved software security, personal freedom, and copyright issues. Each of these situations represents evolving trends in the ever-changing tech sector. Whether you’re an industry insider or a casual consumer looking to stay informed, these are the stories that you need to know.
Attorney General, Senate Focus on Warrant-Proof Encryption
Leaders in the Department of Justice and the U.S. Senate have increased scrutiny of online communication platforms that utilize end-to-end, or “warrant-proof,” encryption for messages. This form of encryption, common to applications like Skype and WhatsApp, means the companies and law enforcement are unable to access private messages in the event of executing a search warrant.
Officials from the Justice Department, including Attorney General William Barr, have tried to pressure companies like Apple and Facebook to change their encryption policies. In the past, the government has looked to work with Silicon Valley to find a solution to the issue. This month, however, both the Attorney General and various elected officials gave an indication that they may try to pass legislation requiring changes.
On Feb 25, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division John Demers described Silicon Valley developers as “dug in” and praised members of Congress for having a “bipartisan appetite for legislation.”
In the U.S. Senate, meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposed an idea for legislation that would end protections for tech companies from liability for messages on their services. The proposed change would be similar to regulations that force telephone companies to cooperate in authorized wiretaps. The Justice Department claims that it mostly wants to force changes in encryption in order to deal with issues like human trafficking and terrorist recruitment.
Changes to encryption, however, come with their own set of risks. Giving law enforcement a “back door” into encrypted messages also makes it more likely that hackers could access them the same way. The changes could also lead to a variety of concerns about privacy and personal freedom.
“People’s expectations when they send someone a message is that that message is viewable by themselves and the intended recipient,” said Moxie Marlinspike, a software developer who worked on the encryption service used by WhatsApp, according to NPR.
Standoffs between tech companies and government and law enforcement agencies have become more common in recent years. One of the most significant examples came in 2016 when Apple refused to help the FBI open encrypted messages on the iPhone of the San Bernardino mass shooter.
Homeland Security Tells Consumers to Update Google Chrome
On Feb 22, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency put out a statement advising users of Google Chrome to update their software to the newest possible version. Google had put out a Chrome update, version 80, earlier in February, but was made aware of possible security risks that the update did not cover after the fact. The new update, version 80.0.3987.116, addresses those issues.
In particular, the Department of Homeland Security was worried about man-in-the-browser (MiTB) cyberattacks, in which a website injects code into an affected browser that gives the hacker access to the victim’s phone. The attack is similar to one that occurred in midway through 2019 that targeted specific ethnic groups, according to Inc.
Many of the glitches being addressed by the update are as of yet unknown, as Google’s official policy dictates that the company will not give details on bugs until most of its users have updated.
The update statement from DHS underscores the continued importance of updating software to avoid security risks. When the exploits addressed in an update are announced, it gives hackers an opportunity to learn about them and implement them against unsuspecting users who did not update quickly enough.
Oracle, Google Trade Barbs as Supreme Court Case Looms
For almost a decade, Google and Oracle, the company that owns Java SE, have been engaged in contentious litigation. Now, after decisions in favor of both parties in various lower courts, their dispute over the copyrighting of APIs in the Android operating system is about to go before the Supreme Court. In preparation, both companies began the process of submitting written arguments, and criticizing each other publicly.
On Feb. 17, the day after filing written arguments, Oracle Executive Vice President Ken Glueck criticized not only Google but also Microsoft and IBM, two companies that have backed Google in court with written statements. Glueck claimed that both companies had conflicts of interest, and could potentially gain financially from a decision in favor of Google.
The original lawsuit stems from Google’s use of several basic lines of code that had been developed by Oracle to help different platforms interact with each other. Oracle claims that by using this code, Google was stealing its creative property. If the court rules in Oracle’s favor, Google will have to pay a little under $9 billion. Ramifications of the case, however, could reach far wider than the two companies. A ruling in favor of Oracle could potentially impact the way new software products interact with each other, and the cost of developing programs.
Oral arguments before the Supreme Court are set to begin on March 24, 2020.
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That concludes this month’s tech round-up, so be sure to check out Faronics’ blog to learn about important trends in the industry.