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US official says leave security to Silicon Valley despite encryption rebuke

RSA Conference: Views from FCC and Homeland Security highlight complexity surrounding encryption, privacy and security.

By Jimmy Nicholls

Two speeches by US officials have revealed a conflicted stance from Washington DC on the future of the cybersecurity industry, despite vigorous affirmation of its importance in the economy.

Speeches at the RSA Conference in San Francisco sent mixed messages to the sector as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) declared cybersecurity must regulate itself, even while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a new warning about the dangers of encryption.

Tom Wheeler, chair of the FCC, told the event: "We believe the paradigm for cybersecurity is proactive and accountable self-governance within mutually agreed parameters.

"This isn’t an ideological matter; it’s simply a logical conclusion. Things change so fast in the cyber-world that prescriptive regulations could never hope to keep pace."

Like many other countries the US has been setting up schemes to promote better cybersecurity for businesses, with the FCC recently asking the Communications Security Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) to revise a framework for business.

Last month that scheme was pushed through by the group in what Wheeler called "a process with promise".

"If there’s one message that I hope I’ve made clear today it’s that cybersecurity cannot be built from above," he said. "It must be built from the bottom up."

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His comments stood in contrast to a speech made just an hour before by Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, who rebuked Silicon Valley for its attempts to secure customer data through better cryptography, even though he claimed to understand the need for privacy protection.

"Our inability to access encrypted information poses public safety challenges, making it harder for your government to find criminal activity," he said, echoing previous comments by James Comey, director of the FBI.

Johnson appealed to conference attendees to take a "tour of service" in the public sector, an appeal that comes as former staff from US government and Wall Street flock to the West Coast to join technology firms.

"We want to strengthen key relationships in Silicon Valley," he insisted.

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