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.


3 Comments for "Wiretap My What?"

  • Bob Gilbert June 23, 2011 10:01 am

    Tony, Thanks for this article, it took me awhile to stumble across it, but there you go. Regarding your TSA friends perspective of- "Unless you're a terrorist, you have nothing to worry about." I would point you (or any interested person) to the history of our government, and probably many governments that have had "reasonable" surveillance, search and seizure laws and policies in place, and either by omission or commission have trampled on citizens�™ rights in some horrific ways. Even if you cast aside the extreme transgressions of abuse of government powers what remains still represents more than enough of a cautionary tale to completely kill your friends perspective. I say this will all due respect for law enforcement and the almost impossible task they face each day. I strongly believe that the LE community should and must have all appropriate tools to fight terrorism, crime and lawlessness. One of the many issues that have emerged with the proliferation of applications and social networking sites is the complete lack of privacy. It appears that most people who actually use and enjoy these apps do not either think about the potential impact of their use, or don't care (think Weiner). Let�™s remember that the real purpose of these services is to sell products and services by companies that buy advertising, not really as a magnanimous gesture. Others, like me look to the other side of the equation- what are the risks and what are the limits of reasonable expectation that we am risking our liberties and privacy by using shared and public applications? I am not a technology Luddite, I love technology and have made my career servicing, selling and working in our wonderful industry, but that is not the point, right? The nagging question I always ponder is just exactly how much terrorism might we prevent using enhanced surveillance technologies on US citizens versus the real cost not just in dollars but in personal liberties lost and confidence in our democracy eroded? I mean, we are going to pay for whatever legislation is passed both the startup costs and for any/all legal actions that ensue whether they are justified or not. When I consider past practices such as racial profiling, some of the BATF abuses in the 70s and 80s on "Law Abiding Citizens" plus what we now know as the Red Scare, and some recent examples of denial of rights of habeas corpus on American Citizens, I believe that we should be very alarmed that any potential for abuse of power and authority will in fact become a reality. Regards, BG

  • Tony Kontzer October 26, 2010 8:43 pm

    Just a guy--thanks for a chiming in...I couldn't agree more. Well, except maybe with the part about you calling your girlfriend after your wife goes to sleep...but even there, to rephrase your thought, your business is your business! Keep reading and commenting... Tony

  • Just a Guy October 10, 2010 10:57 pm

    Yeah eavesdropping is always an interesting topic. See If I secretly set up a webcam to record when the cutie next door wants to take a shower then thats a crime right and I have to go to jail!. But if the Feds do it in the name of patriotism then that's OK?. Sorry I DON'T buy that logic!, See If I commit a Crime I expect to go to jail and that's Fair. But if Government does a Crime then its also fair for Obama or the FBI Chief to go to jail as well and that's just. Tho personally I don't really mind if the Feds really want the recipe for my wife's fantastic pizza sauce. I do however take exception to them knowing which hot stock I'm gonna buy next, . And Id really 'prefer' them not listening to my phone when I'm dialing up my girl friend which I do sometimes but only AFTER my wife falls asleep. True its Not a crime!. But My Business is My Business: GET IT!. Just a Guy.

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