Recently, the New York Times (see references below) reported that the FBI and other national security officials have been working with the Obama administration to submit legislation to Congress that would not only allow them to issue warrants for communications missives sent via the Internet, but would require Internet service companies such as Facebook, Skype and e-mail carriers such as Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google to create back-doors to their products so that they would be able to comply with warrants in nearly real time situations.
The change here isn’t that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies would be able to read private e-mail, or gain access to private account information on social networking sites such as Facebook, because they already have the legal right to do so; the change is in how that information is handed over and how quickly. The problem, as law enforcement and security officials see it, is that the information that is turned over to them currently is sometimes almost impossible to decipher, and the information that is decipherable, sometimes takes an extraordinary amount of time to get to the information they are actually looking for. They want to put the burden on Internet companies to modify their products so that handing over personal information, is easy and clear.
Critics, of course, see this whole thing as yet another means for the government to steal yet another piece of our privacy, all in the name of national security. Others point out that building in back-doors to popular sites and services creates prime targets for hackers and those who wish to steal data for their own gain. It’s not hard to imagine people or groups finding their way to these back-doors and then either sitting there monitoring information as it flows past, or using it to steal private information, or perhaps even to blackmail people.
All of these discussions side-step the real issue here, and that is, should the government be allowed to snoop on people, even with a warrant, using the Internet. We’ve all grown accustomed to the idea that government or police agencies can tap our telephones and cell phones should they have reason to believe you are a criminal or are engaging in criminal activities; but should they be allowed to do so with the Internet? As an example, should the police be allowed to monitor your every move when you are on the Internet simply by serving a warrant to your provider? In such a situation, they could watch as you click on different web sites, and see what you’re looking at or reading. They could watch as you send e-mail or chat on IM or listen in and watch as you talk to people on Skype. Does this seem like it’s something we should allow? And if so, what constitutes a reasonably good reason, and is it a reasonable thing to expect that our government officials would never abuse such a situation? And taking it one step further, would it be okay for your local police to work with your provider to slip a small bit of software onto your computer unbeknownst to you, that would allow them to remotely watch what is actually on your computer screen?
Clearly these are murky waters, and the feeling is that this new wiretap legislation that the White House is drawing up will attract little notice and so it will get passed and then it will go into effect, and it will all just happen whether you like the idea or not.