Spying Online: ‘Even if the war on terrorism ends, the surveillance infrastructure it spawned is likely to remain in place for d
Back in the day, when bad guys used telephones, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies would listen in with wiretaps. As long as phone companies cooperated—and they had to, by law—it was a relatively straightforward process. The Internet, however, separated providers of communications services—Skype, Facebook, Gmail—from those running the underlying infrastructure. Thus, even if the FBI obtains a suspect’s traffic data from their Internet service provider (ISP)—Comcast, Verizon, etc.—it may be difficult to make sense of it, especially if the suspect has been using encrypted services. This loophole has not been lost on child pornographers, drug traffickers, terrorists, and others who prize secret communications.
To catch up with the new technologies of malfeasance, FBI director Robert Mueller traveled to Silicon Valley last November to persuade technology companies to build “backdoors” into their products. If Mueller’s wish were granted, the FBI would gain undetected real-time access to suspects’ Skype calls, Facebook chats, and other online communications—and in “clear text,” the industry lingo for unencrypted data. Backdoors, in other words, would make the Internet—and especially its burgeoning social media sector—“wiretappable.”
The FBI’s plans have left civil libertarians and privacy advocates worried. The backdoors, they say, would make surveillance too easy and might result in over-collection of personal data. Companies in Silicon Valley are worried, too. Complying with demands for backdoors, they say, is costly, thus burdensome for startups, thus a limit on innovation.
Thoughtful proponents of backdoors acknowledge these concerns, but argue that security may trump the value of privacy and innovation. Strong bipartisan congressional support for renewing the surveillance-enabling Patriot Act suggests those proponents might have powerful allies.
But do backdoors actually boost security? Susan Landau, formerly an engineer with Sun Microsystems, thinks not. In her new book, Surveillance or Security?, she argues that Mueller’s plan actually would create greater insecurity. While she agrees that law enforcement agents may have a legitimate need to listen to some electronic communications, she believe backdoors are the wrong strategy, and law enforcement should instead explore opportunities for surveillance afforded by cell phones and social networking.
But in the end, the issue may be moot: backdoors and sophisticated new surveillance tools may both be unnecessary for the purposes of acquiring information. By routinely giving away a huge amount of personal data, everyday Internet users might already have become law enforcement’s greatest ally…