Government Plan Will Leave Terrorists and Other Internet Users No Place to Hide

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Sept. 27 2010 11:44 AM

Government Plan Will Leave Terrorists and Other Internet Users No Place to Hide

Doesn't it feel a little lonesome when you make a phone call on Skype, and only you and the other person can hear it? You're in luck. The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is preparing a bill to submit to Congress next year that would

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 message.

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This is very necessary, because our government wants to protect us from terrorism and crime. Right? Even if the authorities don't always use their protective technology exactly right, their hearts are in the right place, aren't they?

Try this thought experiment: each time the United States government explains why it needs the power to intercept encrypted communications or put all our public spaces on camera or otherwise keep a technologically enhanced eye on things , for everyone's sake—take a moment and mentally remove "United States" and substitute "China" or "Iran" or "Venezuela," whichever country you personally might not enjoy living under the government of.

Because that is what the leaders and security apparatus in those countries will do. This proposed standard says that anyone who wants to supply a new form of communication to our country must include built-in wiretapping capabilities, including the ability to break any encryption. That principle—and the wiretapping capabilities—can be applied just as well by every other government, for whatever those governments deem necessary.

Our authorities want the power to investigate terrorists, or perhaps drug smugglers, or antiwar-activists—no, fine, OK, that was a mistake , they didn't mean it. Grant them their good intentions. Heck, the New York Times even grants them this:

[A]ccording to several other officials, after 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.

That's the best example they can come up with? If they had known beforehand that a would-be terrorist was a would-be terrorist, these proposed changes would have enabled them to wiretap him sooner. Except they didn't know it, so the expanded powers would have done nothing at all to stop the Times Square attempt. But maybe with wiretap powers built into everything on the Internet, the proper authorities can catch the next terrorist plotter. Or the next person planning a Green Movement protest. Or the next Christian evangelist, or the next opposition political candidate, or the next women's rights activist. Isn't it worth a try?

Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.

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