It seems the feds have a little problem getting information these days, what with this whole World Wide Web thingamajig. Since people are doing less of their business by traditional phones and more of it by email, social networking sites, Skype, etc….well, old-world methods like wiretapping just don’t work the same. So officials want Congress to require that these new ways we communicate be able to comply with a wiretap order, reports the New York Times. Which brings up all sorts of questions about privacy, security, technology, and progress, as well as the complicated process of even starting to think about wiretapping something as enormous and untapped as the Internet.
The Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, issued in 1994, took government surveillance digital, requiring that phone and broadband networks have interception capabilities. Now law enforcement is coping with the reality that if they can’t tap the Internet there’s a huge amount of information that won’t be accessible to them — and that more and more people will migrate online for their communications, illicit or otherwise.
Thus, they want to require the following:
• Communications services that encrypt messages must have a way to unscramble them.
• Foreign-based providers that do business inside the United States must install a domestic office capable of performing intercepts.
• Developers of software that enables peer-to-peer communication must redesign their service to allow interception.
If you’re not creeped out by the government seeing what you do on your computer (and, let’s face it, pretty much everyone has done or seen something they wouldn’t tell their mom about on the Internet), there are these issues:
Companies would have to pay for these things, which could prove difficult for startups and even established companies. Per Michael A. Sussmann, a former Justice Department lawyer, “Implementation would be a huge technology and security headache, and the investigative burden and costs will shift to providers.”
Meanwhile, James X. Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, says that the move harkens back to times past: “They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function.”
“Wiretapping,” of course, has a negative connotation to anyone with a fondness for keeping their business to themselves and away from Big Brother’s prying ears and eyes. But how much of what we do is truly private anyway? Social media, in fact, does the opposite of making things private — it makes them very, very public, despite whether your friends or Twitter followers care about what you ate for lunch or how you feel about a particular political issue. Your average everyday citizen is now Google-able, and probably comes with a photo, set of likes and dislikes, and business and personal affiliations. Where once your footprint was a physical entity only, now it exists in waves, everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time.
We love Twitter and Facebook because they allow us to get information through new channels — snag Anna Chapman’s personal photos, or access breaking news before the TV channels get to it. But people who want to do bad things — at least, the “successful” ones — usually want to keep those bad things secret. That’s why a smart spy probably wouldn’t have a Facebook page. Or use a device that allows interception. Wannabe Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, for instance, had apparently been communicating with “a service that lacked prebuilt interception capacity.” If feds do find a way to harness the Internet, who is to say that people won’t do the same thing?
As the Times states,
Even with such a law, some gaps could remain. It is not clear how it could compel compliance by overseas services that do no domestic business, or from a “freeware” application developed by volunteers.
At best, then, there would be loopholes. And interception capabilities could be used against the people who want them in the first place, as well as against your typical average innocent Internet user.
Also telling is this statement regarding Faisal Shahzad:
If he had aroused suspicion beforehand, there would have been a delay before he could have been wiretapped.
If he had aroused suspicion beforehand.
Which gets to the point: Wiretapping the Internet may help catch criminals and terrorists. But suspicion has to be there first to direct any sort of successful surveillance. Beyond that, it’s inevitable that as the government comes up with more ways to find out what its people are doing, the people who don’t want to be found out will come up with more ways to hide.
Either way, we’re keeping our eye on this discussion.
[via New York Times]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 27, 2010