“Wiretapping” could soon refer to the FBI intercepting communications that do not use any actual wires. Both current and former U.S. officials are proposing legislation that could put pressure on Google, Facebook and other tech companies to make it possible for law enforcement to “eavesdrop” on online communications as they occur, the Washington Post reports.
The proposal would, in effect, add an enforcement provision to the 1968 Wiretap Act. Companies that failed to follow wiretap orders would face penalties starting at tens of thousands of dollars.
Up till now, federal officials have backed off when companies, wary of users’ privacy over personal data, have resisted wiretapping requests. The FBI now says that what it calls the “going dark” problem — the “curtain” pulled over suspects’ online activities — is an obstacle to fighting terrorism and tracking down criminals.
Backdoor Wiretaps Could Have Stifling Effect
Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) is quick to point out how the proposal would infringe on our privacy and also stifle innovation. As he says of such “backdoor wiretaps” in the Washington Post:
This proposal is a non-starter that would drive innovators overseas and cost American jobs. They might as well call it the Cyber Insecurity and Anti-Employment Act.
CDT Senior Staff Technologist Joe Hall asserts that this “wiretapping mandate” of popular Internet services amounts to a “vulnerability mandate” that will have profound, and problematic, unintended consequences.
“At the very time when the nation is concerned about cybersecurity, the FBI proposal has the potential to make our communications less secure. Once you build a wiretap capability into products and services, the bad guys will find a way to use it.”
In addition, Hall points out that the whole effort to build a wiretap capability into services could backfire in the government’s face. At a time when information to create such systems is open source and readily accessible, building a communications tool has become a “homework project for undergraduates.” If criminals and others do not want law enforcement to find them, they can “simply use homemade communication services based offshore, making them even harder to monitor.”
After Boston Bombing, Support for Public Surveillance Up
In the U.S., the public’s support for increased surveillance in the name of security is — certainly after the Boston Marathon bombing — on the rise. A New York Times/CBS News poll has found that, after the April 15th attack, Americans have a heightened acceptance of public surveillance in the form of video cameras installed in public places.
965 adults were polled from April 24 to April 28, five days after the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev ended. 78 percent of those polled called surveillance cameras a “good idea.” WIth 9 out of 10 of those polled saying they believed that Americans “would always have to live with the risk” of terrorism, only 20 percent said they thought the government had already “gone too far in restricting civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.” A slightly greater percentage (26 percent) even said they thought the government could go farther; 49 percent did say that “the balance was about right.”
In contrast, in 2011, those who feared losing civil liberties was definitely greater (25 percent) than the number of people who called for a more intrusive government approach (17 percent).
Governments, Surveillance and Internet Freedom
In another sign that U.S. and other governments is increasing online surveillance, Google reported that, in the second half of 2012, it had received a record number of requests from governments for content removal. The latest Google Transparency Report noted that requests for the removal of YouTube videos, posts from Google’s Blogger service and items from Google search grew by 26 percent from the first half of 2012.
In 2011, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were widely hailed for “getting the truth out” about protests in the Middle East. Two years later, we’ve become warier about these tools, having seen how they can as easily spread information for the “bad guys” as well as stoking political change, democracy and freedom of speech. We’ve also learned that they can be compromised, as highlighted by the recent hacking of a number of news organizations (including the Guardian and the Associated Press); Twitter has issued a warning to the BBC and others to tighten security.
The New Republic suggests that we’re living in an era in which nothing less than a “global battle over the future of free speech” is going on, as different governments seek to preserve their citizens’ right to privacy and freedom of expression, while also regulating hate speech and crime. But in the effort to address “hate speech on the borderless Internet,” we need to be careful not to expand regulations of the sort favored by “authoritarian dictatorships, not enlightened democracies.”
From the proposed wiretap backdoor legislation to the latest report about takedown requests, the government is trying to keep track of certain kinds of online activity, criminal and otherwise. While people bristle at the thought of having their private communications meddled with, an uneasiness has settled in after the Boston Marathon bombings. Amid the present worries about safety and security, we need to make sure we do not rush to create policies that could hamper the freedom of the Internet.
At a meeting last month of the American Bar Association about the legal challenges of new technologies, the FBI’s general counsel, Andrew Weissmann, defended the proposal by saying that “we don’t have the ability to go to court and say, ‘We need a court order to effectuate the intercept.’ Other countries have that.” But what works in one country — especially one with a far more authoritarian government — may well be just what the residents of a democracy do not want or need, at all.
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