Not Being Able To Spy On Everyone Online Is A Feature, Not A Bug

from the tell-the-FBI dept

With the recent news coming out that the feds plan to introduce dangerous legislation early next year to mandate backdoors for wiretapping into every form of internet communications, plenty of people have expressed their horror at such a plan. It's not just the basic questions of due process and privacy, but the massive burdens lumped upon all sorts of companies, combined with the equally worrisome security holes opened up by such demands.

Julian Sanchez has a wonderful article over at the American Prospect discussing just how problematic this plan would be:
But the current proposal is far more radical, in part because the Internet is not much like a traditional phone network. To see why, consider Skype, a popular program that allows users to conduct secure text chats, phone conversations, video conferences, and file transfers. Skype is designed as a distributed peer-to-peer network, meaning there's no central hub or switching station through which calls are routed; only the login server used to register members as they sign on to the network is centralized. Calls are encrypted end-to-end, meaning that only the end users who are parties to a call hold the secret keys to secure the conversation against online snoops. There's no device Skype can install at their headquarters that would let them provide police with access to the unencrypted communications; to comply with such a mandate, they'd have to wholly redesign the network along a more centralized model, rendering it less flexible, adaptable, and reliable as well as less secure.

Skype is just one of the thousands of firms, large and small, that would be burdened with the obligation to design their systems for breach. We've already seen how this can cause security vulnerabilities on traditional phone networks: In 2005, it was discovered that unknown hackers had exploited wiretap software built into Vodaphone Greece's computer system for law-enforcement use to eavesdrop on the cellular phone conversations of high Cabinet officials and even the prime minister. Designing for surveillance means, more or less by definition, designing a less secure, more vulnerable infrastructure. It's for just this reason that similar proposals were wisely rejected during the Crypto Wars of the 1990s, a decision that helped give rise to a thriving online economy that's wholly dependent on strong encryption.

It's not just hackers who could exploit such vulnerabilities, of course. A network architecture designed for the convenience of American law enforcement also necessarily makes eavesdropping easy for the many regimes whose idea of a "national-security threat" includes political dissent or blasphemous speech. And there's always the threat of interception by insiders: An engineer at Google was recently fired for using his privileged access to snoop into the private accounts of several teenage users. One way to alleviate such concerns is for firms like Google to enable end-to-end encryption, so users can feel secure that even the company's own employees won't have the keys needed to read their communications. The government's proposal would deny them the ability to make that promise.
Sanchez also has a wonderful line towards the end. In discussing why law enforcement would obviously love this kind of access (while also highlighting its widespread past abuses of wiretapping ability, he notes:
But while governments may consider it a bug when network architecture renders such sweeping surveillance infeasible, citizens should probably regard it as a feature.
An important feature, too, and one that we shouldn't easily part with just because a government with a history of abusing surveillance rights doesn't want to do any legwork anymore.

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  1. icon
    The Groove Tiger (profile), 12 Oct 2010 @ 5:33pm

    Re: Subject

    I get that spying on people's beach and pool photos make you a peeping tom, but I don't understand the relationship between pervs and bank/tax records

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