Wiretap My What?
By Tony Kontzer
Whenever news headlines contain the phrase "Wiretap the Internet," the accompanying stories are guaranteed to provoke reaction. Such was the case with reports this week that the Obama Administration, citing counter-terrorism needs, next year will submit legislation requiring any communications service provider to be technologically capable of complying with a federal wiretap order.
Let's face it: This is a big topic. We're talking about expanding federal government access to everything from emails and text messages to social networking posts and peer-to-peer messaging networks. Yes, phone companies and broadband providers already are subject to such requirements, but communications service providers, while subject to wiretap orders, are not required to possess the technical capability to comply.
Taken in that context, this may not sound like such a big deal, but any time the federal government is seeking additional powers to pry into Americans' private lives, a national discussion is warranted. And that is just what has happened since news of the Obama Administration's plans broke, with privacy advocates reacting to the proposal and related social media posts flying fast and furious.
On Twitter, noted political satirist Andy Borowitz chose to attack the development with irony. "Wait, the White House wants to wiretap the Internet to invade our privacy? Why not just friend us on Facebook?" he posted. Meanwhile, one of the most-shared links on the subject led Twitter devotees to a PC World story with this provocative sub-headline: "Your Internet privacy could go the way of the dodo, if the feds enact laws to snoop on Skype chats and Facebook messages."
Interestingly, one set of players that would be expected to have a definitive reaction--namely, the Googles, Skypes and Facebooks that provide the services in question--chose to stay silent. I guess none of them wants to draw any attention that might lead to being first in line if and when the feds start issuing Internet wiretap orders.
ZDNet's Larry Dignan took a measured, non-committal approach to the proposed legislation, choosing to resist drawing a conclusion until the technical details are worked out. And, truth be known, the law-abiding among us are highly unlikely to ever be affected. As a good friend of mine in the Transportation Security Administration said to me last week about TSA's constant challenges from privacy advocates, "Unless you're a terrorist, you have nothing to worry about."
Such level-headedness aside, I don't feel like being so patient, nor do I think anyone else should be. Whether this specific legislation, as it's proposed, will be an actual threat to law-abiding citizens or not isn't the question. We're talking about protecting our civil liberties here. This is about drawing lines in the sand, and not allowing government to step over them. Enough of our digital rights have been trod upon in the name of post-9/11 counterterrorism, and something tells me that's exactly what the terrorists had in mind all along.