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Change We Can Believe In, VII

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Change we can believe in: Wiretapping the internet

Two months ago, in Change We Can Believe In, III, I addressed the Obama administration’s expansion of e-mail surveillance. On the front page of today’s NYT, Charlie Savage reports on the latest development:

Federal law enforcement and national security officials are preparing to seek sweeping new regulations for the Internet, arguing that their ability to wiretap criminal and terrorism suspects is “going dark” as people increasingly communicate online instead of by telephone.

Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.

The bill, which the Obama administration plans to submit to lawmakers next year, raises fresh questions about how to balance security needs with protecting privacy and fostering innovation. And because security services around the world face the same problem, it could set an example that is copied globally.

. . .

Investigators have been concerned for years that changing communications technology could damage their ability to conduct surveillance. In recent months, officials from the F.B.I., the Justice Department, the National Security Agency, the White House and other agencies have been meeting to develop a proposed solution.

There is not yet agreement on important elements, like how to word statutory language defining who counts as a communications service provider, according to several officials familiar with the deliberations.

But they want it to apply broadly, including to companies that operate from servers abroad, like Research in Motion, the Canadian maker of BlackBerry devices. In recent months, that company has come into conflict with the governments of Dubai and India over their inability to conduct surveillance of messages sent via its encrypted service.

Think back two months. When you read about in early August about the United Arab Emirates’ demand to get access to Blackberry communication data, Research in Motion’s refusal to turn the data over, and the UAE’s ultimate decision to ban Blackberries, did you think that that’s something that couldn’t (and shouldn’t) happen here? If so, our State Department agreed with you:

The United States said it was disappointed that the United Arab Emirates planned to cut off key BlackBerry services, noting that the Gulf nation was setting a dangerous precedent in limiting freedom of information.

“We are committed to promoting the free flow of information,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “We think it’s integral to an innovative economy.”

The UAE said over the weekend that it would suspend Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Messenger, email and Web browser services from October 11 until the government could get access to encrypted messages.

Evidently the Obama administration no longer is committed to the free flow of information. As Glenn Greenwald noted earlier today:

For those insisting that the Government must have the technological ability to eavesdrop on any and all communications in order to stop Terrorists and criminals, what are you going to do about in-person communications? By this logic, the Government should install eavesdropping devices in all private homes and public spaces, provided they promise only to listen in when the law allows them to do so (I believe there was a book written about that once [Greenwald links here to 1984]). For those insisting that the Government must have the physical ability to spy on all communications, what objections could one have to such a proposal? We’ve developed this child-like belief that all Bad Things can be prevented — we can be Kept Safe from all dangers — provided we just vest enough power in the Government to protect us all. What we lose from that mentality, however, is quite vast yet rarely counted. A central value of the Internet was that it was supposed to enable the flow of information free from the surveillance and control of governmental and other authorities.

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