Friday, October 1, 2010

Wiretapping the Internet: Security vs. Privacy

In Chapter 1 of Global Governance: A Beginners Guide, O Siochru et al mention that one aspect to societal regulation "is whether, and the circumstances in which, the state has the right to intervene in and access private transmission and communication in the general public interest. The balance of privacy and the public good is relevant to all media but is topical in the area of Internet encryption and whether the state should in principle be allowed to intercept and interpret encoded messages" (p. 10).

This has been in the news recently as the U.S. Government announced plans for a bill, to be introduced next year, that would make it easier for law enforcement to wiretap the internet. In recent months, meetings have been held between the F.B.I., the Justice Department, the National Security Agency, the White House, and other government agencies. Officials argue that criminal and terrorism suspects are increasingly using the internet to communicate with one another, which is more difficult to monitor than communication via telephone. The bill would require communications providers (such as BlackBerry, FaceBook, and Skype) to be technically able to comply if served with a wiretap order, including having the ability to intercept and decipher encrypted messages.

The Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act of 1994 required phone and broadband networks to have interception capabilities, but this does not apply to communication service providers. Though they are subject to wiretap orders, communication service providers do not always have the capability to unscramble encrypted messages. Charlie Savage of the New York Times reports that "while some maintain interception capacities, others wait until they are served with orders to try to develop them," which can delay or prevent surveillance of suspects.

According to the New York Times, the bill will likely include the following:

- "Communications services that encrypt messages must have a way to unscramble them.
- Foreign-based providers that do business inside the United States must install a domestic office capable of performing intercepts.
- Developers of software that enables peer-to-peer communication must redesign their service to allow interception."

This proposal raises some concerns over the potential impact on global regulation, and James X. Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, claims that the bill challenges the “fundamental elements of the Internet revolution.” Others worry about the cost of implementation that would be passed down to providers. And another concern is that the ability to intercept and unscramble messages could be exploited by hackers.

In addition, the balance of security and individual privacy needs to also be considered in terms of individual rights. When and to what extent should private communication be intercepted for the "public good" (highly subjective and defined differently from government to government)?

"U.S. Tries to Make it Easier to Wiretap the Internet"

"BlackBerry's Security Approach Leads to Theories of Secret Deals"

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