Interview Selects 3.27.20
Ep 10 | 3.27.20

Jonathan Katz on the use of a cryptographic ledger to provide accountability for law enforcement.


Dave Bittner: And joining me once again is Jonathan Katz. He's a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland and also director of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center. Jonathan, welcome back. We had an interesting story come by. This was from Fast Company. And the title of the article was "MIT's Tool For Tracking Police Surveillance: A Cryptographic Ledger." This sounds like something that is right up your alley. What's going on here?

Jonathan Katz: This work is relevant to the broader discussion about providing law enforcement access to encrypted data. And this specific proposal isn't so much looking at how exactly that access would be provided but about providing accountability - public accountability for that access. So basically what the researchers propose is that you have some kind of system set up between law enforcement and the judicial system that would place certain values on a blockchain whenever law enforcement requested access to encrypted data. And the idea that it would be that the public could look at what kind of requests are being made, how often these requests are being made. And even down the line, after the investigation might be over, they could even potentially look at the data that was requested and get a sense of how often this kind of thing is going on.

Dave Bittner: So really leveraging that transparency that is inherent in the blockchain - I suppose, in this case, people hope for the greater good for law enforcement.

Jonathan Katz: Yeah, that's right. So I think a lot of people are concerned about providing unfettered access to law enforcement to access encrypted data. And part of their concern I think is not that they mind law enforcement going after real criminals, but they mind the idea of law enforcement being able to target whoever they like for no particular reason. And so providing an accountability like this might actually make people more comfortable with the idea of giving law enforcement access.

Dave Bittner: And what is your take on this? Does the underlying science seem to make sense? I mean, from a cryptographic point of view, is this is this a workable solution?

Jonathan Katz: I think definitely yes. I think, again, if you're comfortable with the idea of providing access at all, then the idea of providing accountability in this way is actually a really interesting one. And I'm all for the idea of providing greater accountability in government in general. So that does seem like a reasonable approach.

Dave Bittner: And what about from a privacy point of view? What's the flip side here? Is there - are there things that people could have concerns about of making this sort of information available?

Jonathan Katz: Well, I think people are always concerned about whether or not law enforcement and the judicial system would actually use the technology. So for example, you could imagine that if law enforcement has the ability to go after encrypted data, then they may not contact a judge and request permission. Or they may contact the judge, and the judge may decide that in this particular case they don't have to report it - making that decision on their own, kind of an extralegal decision. And so people who are concerned about government infringement on their privacy might just as well be worried that the government won't use the system as it's been proposed.

Dave Bittner: Right. A blockchain doesn't do you much good if the folks actually aren't using it.

Jonathan Katz: Yeah, that's right. And it's not so easy to prove that somebody failed to use the system properly.

Dave Bittner: Right, right. All right, well it's interesting - certainly worth keeping an eye on. As always, Jonathan Katz, thanks for joining us.

Jonathan Katz: Thank you.