Thursday, September 30, 2010

It was nice while it lasted

It was nice to be able to praise the O-crowd for something, in this case the effort to preserve federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

But of course it couldn't last. Next year, the White House will push for legislation
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.
That's a polite way of putting it; the more direct way is to say that the Obama administration wants to be able to demand of all communications companies of all sorts that they redesign their systems and re-rig their hardware so that anything you write or say can be made instantly available, on demand, to the government - and in plain text form, even if the message was encrypted. And they will want it to apply even to companies that operate from servers abroad if they do any business in the US, including requiring them to open some office in the US at which taps can be installed.

The thing here is, a 1994 law required telephone and broadband providers to have "interception capabilities," that is, they had to be designed in a way that allowed the cops to conveniently tap into them. But that law does not apply to outfits like Blackberry, Facebook, or Skype because they are not "providers" under the 1994 law. So to put things even more directly, the O-gang wants to be able to demand that all such companies go out of their way to make it easier for the government to spy on you.

As is typical with what years ago was called a "salami slice" ("It's a little thing, not worth fighting about" - but enough such slices and the whole salami is gone.), officials minimized the meaning.
“We’re talking about lawfully authorized intercepts,” said Valerie E. Caproni, general counsel for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “We’re not talking expanding authority."
You're talking about being able to force companies to do what they didn't before, to have cop-friendly capabilities they didn't before, in order to enable you to wiretap where you couldn't before, spy where you couldn't before, to get data (including messages in decrypted form) that you couldn't before. Yes, you are talking about expanding authority, Ms. Caproni, and you are a liar.

And of course there were the horror stories about how without this expanded power all hell could break loose. But that argument seemed especially lame this time around, since this is one of the examples cited:
[A]fter the failed Times Square bombing in May, investigators discovered that the suspect, Faisal Shahzad, had been communicating with a service that lacked prebuilt interception capacity. If he had aroused suspicion beforehand, there would have been a delay before he could have been wiretapped.
So if we had known something we didn't, these new demands might have saved us from a bomb that didn't go off planted by someone who was apparently a lone wolf about whose plot (for that reason) a wiretap - which still could have been placed, just not as quickly - would be expected to reveal little if anything.

I am not impressed. Especially since another thing that gets minimized is that these new capabilities would not be available only in "24" scenarios of "Catch the bombers before they strike!" but would be available to all law enforcement down to the local level for any reason a wiretap on a telephone might be approved now.
Civil rights and privacy groups were quick to condemn the plan, warning that the administration faces an uphill battle.

"This is a shortsighted and ill-conceived power grab by some in the administration," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The balance has swung radically toward enhanced law enforcement powers. For them to argue that it's still not enough is just unbelievable. It's breathtaking in its hubris."

He said that over the past 15 years - particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks - the standards for warrants have been lowered. And he said law enforcement has many new technologies, ranging from biometric tracking to DNA databases, to enhance it's information gathering.

Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that mandating that all communications software be accessible to the government is a "huge privacy invasion."

"Under the guise of a technical fix, the government looks to be taking one more step toward conducting easy dragnet collection of Americans' most private communications," said Calabrese. "This proposal will create even more security risks by mandating that our communications have a 'backdoor' for government use and will make our online interactions even more vulnerable."
One the other hand,
[o]ne senior law enforcement official said it is premature to conclude that the changes would erode computer security or enable identity theft.
Right. So we have to expand the ability of the government to spy on us, to poke and probe our private conversations, without regard to the potential consequences because we have to wait until those consequences actually happen (and are proven over the expected vociferous denials of law enforcement), when it is too late. I feel much better now.

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