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.
| September 27, 2010; 2:28 PM ET
Categories: Policy and politics, Privacy, Security
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