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Nov 25, 2021
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Securing the Public: Who Should Take Charge?

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BLACK HAT EUROPE 2021 — London — When governments rely on private organizations to build and protect their digital infrastructure, who is charged with protecting the public? How can troves of information stay secure at a time when the attack surface is rapidly expanding?
These are questions Marietje Schaake, international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, discussed during her opening keynote today at Black Hat Europe 2021, live this week in London. She pointed to a couple of examples that underscore a complex, evolving, and potentially dangerous relationship between private sector businesses and governments.
“Increasingly, we see how governance and power in the hands of commercial technology firms ends up eroding democratic principles and practices,” Schaake said.
One week ago, the United States added four companies from Israel, Russia, and Singapore to its Entity List for “engaging in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” The week prior, United Nations officials said mercenaries and private actors profit from operating cyber capabilities they could use to violate human rights.
The market for offensive capabilities is “growing rapidly, and subject to little regulation,” UN officials said. Security providers are “becoming extensions of State command and, therefore, ‘mercenary-like’ proxies.”
As attack surfaces have expanded, so have tools to weaponize and destroy digital ecosystems, Schaake explained. Intrusive tools are no longer just in the hands of the National Security Agency or the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters.
“There is growing, and often not illegal, markets of intrusions-as-a-service,” she said. Offensive tools are accessible to a growing number of people who can use them for nefarious purposes. But, she noted, democratic governments have “barely acted” despite the ability of companies and nation-states to access tools that can be used against policy goals and democratic values.
Why should democratic principles guide how we govern and secure digital infrastructure? Today’s governments now “over-depend” on private companies to protect and build digital infrastructure, she said. Most critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector, which creates a problem not only for companies but for a democratic balance of power.
“Governments themselves are evading accountability by outsourcing important tasks to tech companies,” Schaake noted.
As the world grows increasingly connected, and as the proliferation of software expands the attack surface, questions of accountability, liability, and responsibility are unclear, she continued. Schaake cited a recent statement by President Biden, who has also spoken about the need for public-private partnership to secure digital infrastructure.
The government can’t address this challenge alone, and it’s up to both parties to create a system that are both secure and respect the rights of people who use them. We should consider the impact of technology on society, she said, and look at how democratic institutions can play a larger role in implementing robust protections. The US has a state-by-state system, but it is a patchwork with gaps that give opportunities to attackers.
There are several steps that can be taken to address these problems. Schaake pointed to the need for stronger transparency requirements, noting that today we only know which private firms sell hacking tools to governments because of whistleblowers and journalists. “There is so much information that is missing,” she said, and there is a need for transparency and auditing. She also called for better standards for information sharing among companies and governments to strengthen public knowledge and incident response.
We need incentives to build safer products, Schaake said, as another step. There should be clearer requirements for safer systems and liability consequences when there is negligence.
“There are simply too many opportunities to be exploited,” she noted. “We have to help public organizations, and organizations with greater exposure, to actually make the right decisions.”
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