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Administration Internet-wiretap proposals forget history

Any headline that uses the phrase "wiretap the Internet" is likely to make people on the Internet cranky. When this wiretapping scheme comes from an administration that already has an iffy record on digital-rights issues, there's good reason to be angry about it.

Today's news comes from the New York Times, which reported that the Obama administration wants 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 make their services compatible with government wiretap orders, decrypting their user's encrypted messages if necessary.

The NYT piece, by Charlie Savage, says the administration plans to submit legislation imposing these requirements next year.

One plank in this proposal, as I understand it, merely looks unrealistic. That's the idea to extend the mandates already applied to Internet providers and Internet-calling services by a 1994 law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. That law requires them to make their services compatible with wiretap requests; the administration would like to put operators of other communications sites and services, from Facebook to peer-to-peer messaging services, under the same requirement.

But where CALEA focuses on companies with fixed facilities and U.S. addresses, this expanded authority would have to cover services based overseas and open-source applications with no physical location at all. Good luck with that.

Part two of this idea seems not only unrealistic but outright foolish--the unworkable concept of requiring encrypted services to retain the ability to decrypt messages. The authors of this proposal seem to have forgotten the dubious history of Clinton administration's ill-fated "Clipper chip" scheme for mandatory unlocking of scrambled messages. One reason why Clipper sank was the widespread availability of such open-source encryption tools as Pretty Good Privacy, which anybody could use instead of Clipper-compliant hardware or software. No new law will undo those developments.

As unwise as these proposals seem on their own, they seem even worse in the context of this Obama administration's actions. It's defended the Bush administration's illegal wiretapping under a dubious "state secrets" doctrine (fortunately, it lost). It continues to assert the right to search the laptops of citizens returning from overseas without any suspicion of wrongdoing. It's proposed to compel Web sites to turn over more information about their users to the FBI without a court order:

Maybe there's some need for refinements of existing law to ensure that comparable services face the same obligations. But the administration has long since lost the right to say "trust us" or "we need to do this to stop the terrorists" on these matters.

By Rob Pegoraro  | September 27, 2010; 2:28 PM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics, Privacy, Security  
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Thank you but no.

I remember being in an industry committee meeting in the early 1990's when someone from government came to give us a presentation on the clipper chip. Our response then was Thank you but no. The biggest objection to us was lack of security in the key escrow system.

Eventually the key escrow system, along with the whole clipper chip concept, failed due to technical deficiencies and lack of security in the key escrow concept. We didn't know about those technical deficiencies at the time of the presentation; our concern was human deficiencies -- not trusting the government to act as a trusted keeper of the key.

Posted by: Bob_Dobbs | September 27, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

There is no way I would want to give this aministration access to anything! What is needed is more access to this administration. All we have are lies. Our constitution has been run rough-shod by Obama and his minions. What we must have is a completely new administration in the WH and soon!

Posted by: annnort | September 27, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Obama is showing us he is just as bad as GW Bush in attacking civil liberties. So where is the ACLU and other liberal defenders of liberty when the attacker is a Democrat? The most important thing to understand is that the greatest enemies of American freedom and privacy are not the politics of Republicans or Democrats. Those real enemies are the 20+ year career lawyer bureaucrats in the justice dept that are trying their best to destroy our freedoms and establish a "surveillance society" where every move you make, every location you are in at any time, every call you make, every web page you look at is recorded for them. The East German Stasi would be as proud of this proposal as would the KGB. Imagine a future under Big Brother: A crime is committed. Dept of Justice, by electronic instant access to your bank account, credit card, cell phone gps, and internet records, finds you were within 100 ft of the crime scene. That makes you a suspect, guilty until proven innocent! What? You don't have $50,000 handy for a lawyer? Too bad for you. You'll get a public defender lawyer who will advise you to plead guilty and beg for mercy at sentencing. I'm sick of hearing DOJ bureaucrats and now Obama using terrorism as an excuse to violate our civil rights! Read the law carefully. DOJ bureaucrats always insert the word "criminal" after terrorist investigation. That way ANYTHING the DOJ or FBI feels like doing can be legally called a "criminal" investigation, and covered by their constant attack on decent people's privacy rights. They are aided by the cowardly lapdogs who bleet "if you're not doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear from wiretapping" That's what Gestapo head Heinrich Himmler told the German people too in 1935. My how history repeats itself!

Posted by: Privatefrank | September 27, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse

Wonder how many of same libs who screamed the loudest when Bush proposed wire-tapping during his administration for security reasons are behind internet wire-tapping.

It was necessary then and it is necessary now.

Posted by: bethg1841 | September 27, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse


"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Leave your politicking at home. A new administration -- which constitutionally is impossible until January 2013 -- will not solve this problem, only continue it. Or did you, too, "forget history"?

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | September 28, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Its very disappointing that Obama is continuing with the wire-taping policies of Bush:

Posted by: bjsilverman | September 29, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

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