How and why Uncle Sammy’s creeping on your Facebook.
By Kellan Davidson
The flow of information is often one of the most important aspects of war; it is also arguable that war is one of the most important aspects of communications within the United States.
The Internet itself, the single most valuable human communications tool in the world, began in earnest as a U.S. military project called ARPANET, a military initiative during the Cold War to complicate weapons communications to ensure their security. The purpose of ARPANET was to decentralize communications into a network so that transmissions could not be traced, intercepted or disabled as easily as the circuit-to-circuit connections that had, up until that point, been the standard.
Now, wartime needs have once again shaped the flow of information— only now, the focus has shifted from protecting information to prying protected information out.
The Internet has come a long way since its humble beginnings with ARPANET. The Internet is now not only a mass medium, with its reach starting to overtake television and telephone, but it is rapidly becoming the mass medium. With encryption, peer-to-peer messaging and file sharing, the dispersion of the web has become a thorn in the side of governments everywhere.
“Technology has had this astonishingly disruptive impact on the world, and they haven’t even come to grips in the slightest way with it,” said Ken Birman, professor of computer science at Cornell University.
It is for this reason that the decentralization, the idea on which the Internet was developed in the first place, is now the federal government’s public enemy No. 1.
The federal government announced a proposal in late September to request that companies that provide end-to-end encrypted communications, like Research In Motion (owners of Blackberry), Skype and Facebook, build backdoors into their services so the government can access their information. Under the 1994 Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, the FBI is claiming that this is technically not an expansion of their jurisdiction. The law states that communications companies must adapt to serve the federal government, which they describe as only an update to permissions already attained under the Patriot Act that passed in 2001.
“We’re not talking expanding authority,” said Valeri E. Caproni, general counsel for the FBI. “We’re talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security.”
The Cost of Change
So, if Big Brother has been watching all along, doesn’t this just mean he’s simply watching in more places? If it’s only to catch the bad guys, what’s the big deal?
There are several snags in this deal. First, the thousands of companies that provide distributed peer-to-peer messaging, like Skype, would have to wholly redesign their network to appease this mandate. Messages on Skype are not sent through a central hub that routes them and can just be tapped into—they are sent from one computer to another and are encrypted end-to-end so that only the recipient can read transmissions. There is no gadget that Skype can install to give the government access to these transmissions, so they would have to revamp their network into something that is altogether less flexible, adaptable and secure.
A company as large as Skype would be able to afford this change, but start-up businesses in Internet communication may suffer. Small companies would be forced to allocate the time, energy and resources of their engineers toward building these backdoors and therefore have less focus on developing security, timeliness and ingenuity of their products. The future of Internet business in the U.S. could be severely stunted.
Hackers Blaze the Trail
When these backdoors are implemented, there is also no promise that they will be used strictly by law enforcement. This year, a Google employee was fired for breaching internal privacy policies by accessing the Gmail and Gchat services belonging to several teens. With no promise of end-to-end encryption and backdoors that must be readily available, messages and services may be subject to more than just the prying eyes of government officials.
“The issue isn’t whether or not the government should have a right to [wiretap] because they’ve had the right to do wiretapping… for a long time,” said Birman. “The real worry is that they’ll do it ineptly, and then your random hacker will be able to break in. A lot of people don’t think they can get the [new wiretaps] right. Electronic voting has been horrendous, so people point to things like that and say, ‘If they can’t get that right, how could they possibly get this much more complicated thing right?’”
Exploitation of wiretaps by persons entirely outside of the business structure of a given communications company or the government has happened before. In 2005, the cell phones of more than 100 members of the Greek government were tapped by unknown sources. Among those tapped were the ministers of foreign affairs, justice and defense, along with the prime minister himself. VodaFone, the service provider for the tapped phones, had built the devices with the help of hardware producer Ericsson to be wiretap-capable, turned on only for those countries that requested it. Greece had not requested the service but still suffered the consequences of tap-readiness at its highest echelons of power.
Who Watches the Watchmen?
Wiretapping has been a point of incredible importance to totalitarian countries that are afflicted by dissention, thanks to the anonymity of encrypted data transmission. Already, the countries of the United Arab Emirates attempted to ban RIM and their Blackberry devices for failing to consent to the government accessing their networks. These companies can afford to decline these demands, as the cost to redesign their networks may outweigh the value of selling their service in that area.
The U.S., as one of the largest consumers of social media and messaging in the world, would likely set the benchmark for these capabilities. Companies would be forced to buy into the idea of wiretapping for fear of losing the lucrative American market. It stands to reason that these same companies would allow other nations to use the wiretapping capabilities to their own ends because the technological legwork would already have been done. The United States would therefore be a silent partner in the suppressing of international democracy by way of taking away the voices of those who fight for it.
Before adapting the jurisdiction of this act, one must also look at how the government has used it in the past to see whether or not we truly want them to have more access. The National Security Agency built surveillance rooms in the headquarters of major communications companies that were granted immunity for cooperating with the government. These rooms cataloged millions of e-mail messages, including many communications to and from Americans in the U.S. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the government to build these rooms, provides a loophole for the federal government to access these American correspondences without getting a court order. The act states that these messages can be accessed if the American-to-American correspondences account for no more than 30 percent of results received while performing searches that target people who are “reasonably believed” to be outside of the United States.
This loophole was grossly exploited with very little oversight. According to The New York Times, in 2005 the agency “routinely examined large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants.” Millions of innocent Americans were spied on by the NSA; even the e-mails of former president Bill Clinton were subject to meddling eyes. The NSA claimed that these were completely incidental interceptions and that the organization was moving toward limiting them. U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, disputed this point when he said, “Some actions are so flagrant that they can’t be accidental.” These actions are meant to protect Americans, true, but it cannot be ignored that dubious uses have occurred on the end of law enforcement.
Patriot Act 2.0
The logic is this: Enemies of the United States of America can use encrypted messaging to coordinate attacks on this nation. It is a valid point. However, the fact of the matter is a large-scale tapping like this cannot be done cleanly and will severely hurt American society as we know it.
On a commercial level, in an economy that is already floundering, we may cripple our abilities to grow and adapt a stable and secure infrastructure on the ever-evolving Internet, where much of our intellectual capital as a nation is currently invested.
On a personal level, many of us have already consented to corporations intervening in our daily lives, simply by checking the boxes below the endless amounts of privacy statements all over the web. Our interests, values and beliefs are already traded as a commodity on the web en masse, so on a personal level, perhaps this doesn’t frighten people anymore.
“One can argue there is no privacy anymore and there never will be again, which is really alarming, if you think about it,” Birman said.
Through this action the government can hold the keys to the final frontier of human interaction. The ability for the government to monitor our personal correspondences puts our freedoms of speech and expression in jeopardy. One must question what we have as human beings independent of a governing body if we trust them with our voices. Many people still have faith in the old adage of “truth, justice and the American way,” but one must also take into account a separate adage: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Kellan Davidson is a senior journalism major who would appreciate it if you’d stand behind the virtual line, Mr. Government. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.