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Technology moving too fast for governments to keep up, says former Darpa chief

Former US defence technology chief supports encryption and privacy, despite intelligence services’ fears

Technology companies are moving too fast for governments to keep up, according to a former chief of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

Kaigham (Ken) Gabriel was acting director of Darpa and the man behind drone technology and global positioning satellites, as well as the military’s top secret, high-tech operation responsible for inventing the forerunner to the internet, Arpanet.

He believes governments are fighting a losing battle with technologies such as encryption. But, when it comes to the possibility of advanced tech falling into the wrong hands, he doesn’t believe western governments should give up altogether.

In an interview with Computer Weekly at the EIT Innovation Forum in Budapest, Gabriel said export controls on certain so-called dual-use tech were sensible and practical.

“Export control of dual-use technology is a very important area. It is a serious issue that we have to be careful very about. Yes, the field is level from the point of view of commercial tech, but that doesn’t mean all bets are off and we should just dump all technologies on the marketplace,” he said.

“I think we are far from that utopia. There are certain elements that should be thoughtfully and carefully controlled and restricted by export.

“One of the things people and governments need to understand is that the private sector is moving [with a lot of] speed, energy and economic power. The days when government could leapfrog encryption with federally funded or defence-funded technologies are gone,” Gabriel added.

“It’s going to be very hard to fight and to push against those trends. The reality is that when people, for good or ill, get their hands on a technology, it is very hard to take it away from them. Overall, that’s a good thing.

“It will be a constant escalation – the government will come up with a way to break it and someone else will come up with a way to further encrypt.”

On the side of privacy

Gabriel, a former Google executive and now president and CEO of the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, thinks companies outpacing governments on encryption is no bad thing. On the question of the FBI’s attempts to force Apple to hack into an iPhone owned by an alleged terrorist, he said he was firmly on the side of privacy.

“The reality is that we – as countries and companies – have had the technology to effectively encrypt things to the point where even nation states can’t necessarily decrypt them for some time now. In general, that is a good thing,” he said.

He was less sanguine about other developing techology in the defence sector, such as surveillance capabilities or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – better known as drones.

“Even though I make the statement that the commercial world is moving fast, there are certain technologies made by companies such as mine, or others in the defence sector in Europe or the US, that must be protected. Other actors may take those technologies and layer additional capability on top of them,” he said.

Read more about encryption

In December 2015, the EU updated its export control regulations that apply to blacklisted countries or those that “facilitate gross human rights abuses”, including defining which UAVs are subject to export controls.

Earlier in April 2016, Italy’s Hacking Team had its global export licence revoked. This means it must now apply for special approval to sell its surveillance technology outside Europe.

Hacking Team has said it has never sold its “lawful intercept technology” to anyone other than legitimate government and law enforcement agencies.

Gabriel is nonetheless optimistic about the future of technology innovation, although he believes it would be better for the global technology ecosystem if four or five dominant multinationals didn’t hold all the cards.

“That one’s easy. I go back to diversity. I don’t think Google has a corner on innovation, I don’t think Facebook has a corner on innovation,” he said.

“Anything that is an innovation, that is a product, that has value, that falls in the protection of a government patent system – whether US or EU – is legitimate. Try it. See if you can get a utility patent or provisional patent or whatever it is that you need. I myself am an agnostic on whether or not exploits can be patentable.”

Gabriel also does not believe that export controls stifle innovation, whether based on country blacklisting or purpose limitation. “There is a belief that innovation only happens when you are free from any constraints, but actually it’s counter-intuitively the opposite,” he said.

Read more on Hackers and cybercrime prevention

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