If the Government Had Its Way, Everything Could be Wiretapped

Just how much are the police entitled to know about us?

The battle over encryption and secure communications suggests that governments think the answer is “everything,” at least so long as investigators aren’t violating weak privacy laws. And to carry out that audacious view, policy makers around the world are fighting privacy tools that will protect us from business competitors, criminals, and government abuses.

Twenty years ago, we had a lot more privacy than we do today. Conversations vanished into the air as the very words were spoken. Only a time traveler could turn back the clock to learn whether we’d been at the scene of a robbery, a mosque, or an abortion clinic on any particular date — or who we were with. No one knew if we read The New York Times or the Anarchist Cookbook. The searches we made through the library card catalogs were known to us alone.

Today the technology we use in our daily lives creates long-lasting records about deeply personal things. Email and chat capture our conversations with friends, family, and coworkers. Our cellphones create logs of where we’ve been, where we are going, and whom we are with. Our internet searching and browsing is a window into our most personal interests and curiosities.

Participating in modern society requires that one expose private information to communications providers — and from there potentially to advertisers, marketers, identity thieves, blackmailers, stalkers, police, spies, and more. The boom in communications technology is an amazing, delightful thing. But most companies put innovation, market share, and ad revenue above all else. From a privacy and security standpoint, these tools are broken.

So people are demanding that companies fix the products and services we use to give us back some control over what we reveal about ourselves. The most popular texting tools in the world, WhatsApp, iMessage, and Facebook Messenger, can encrypt texts from one device to another, so that an interloper cannot read them. Many other secure communications tools are now available as well, like Signal, Wire, and Wickr. People want to have private conversations that are not recorded for all time, and these platforms are making that possible again.

To some governments, however, these are not “fixes.” Instead, they’re seen as new obstacles to getting data that police and intelligence officers have become accustomed to having access to. So governments are trying to force the public to continue to use broken technology — and to make sure that future technology is just as broken.

For example, a new law in Australia would force internet companies to modify their services to ensure that investigators can wiretap us and obtain other private information. In at least one sealed court case, the U.S. government has tried to force Facebook to rewrite the code of its Messenger product to make eavesdropping possible. Authorities in India, Brazil, and elsewhere are pressuring WhatsApp to alter the platform so that police can track people and posts. And two officials from the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre and GHCQ, the British version of the U.S. National Security Agency, have proposed that no one be able to distribute a chat tool that a spy can’t secretly eavesdrop on.

Governments’ goal is to ensure that records of whatever we do and whatever we say will be available in case investigators can meet whatever justification their country requires for looking at it. This is an astounding and novel premise.

Before the internet was in widespread use, anyone making these assertions would have been laughed at. No one had the audacity to suggest that, even with a warrant, people could be required to record their conversations, talk only in a place someone could overhear, keep a travel journal, or log their reading and research. No one thought that having a confidential conversation was evidence of a guilty intent. No one thought that having a private conversation created a “zone of lawlessness,” as the Justice Department ominously put it.

Now that technology has unintentionally created exactly these kinds of surveillance windfalls, governments want to keep it that way, arguing that if they are acting lawfully, they are entitled to our private data. This is wrong. Complying with privacy laws may give our government the authority to search, but we are not obligated to ensure our private matters are there for the taking.

It’s okay, we’re told, because the police and spies will only look when the law allows it. But we know that’s not true. After 9/11, the Bush administration implemented a broad and illegal spying program called StellarWind, which included bulk collection of American’s data, such as records about all domestic phone calls. Police officers and intelligence analyists routinely spy on their spouses and lovers.

It’s also a problem because our privacy rules were not developed for today’s world of information everywhere, and they are not strong enough. And communications security is far from perfect — unencrypted data is at risk from economic competitors, identity thieves, hackers, blackmailers, corrupt public officials, and oppressive governments.

Government agencies have gotten used to a temporary bonanza of private information made possible by broken technology. Encryption and other tools to fix the privacy problem are now increasingly common, with more and better information security available every day. Companies must be allowed to create such tools, and people be allowed to use them.

The alternative is a dangerous and dystopic world where the intimate details of our lives are documented, stockpiled, and accessible to governments around the world.

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MAsbury

"The government"? Which one? What part? Local police? Bernie Sanders? Rand Paul? Donald Trump? The Supreme Court? Regulatory agencies?
While I wholly favor the point of the article, it plays into Reagan conservatism ("government IS the problem") when it lumps every national and state politician and function into one common enemy.
Government must be made to be part of the solution by being transparent and accountable.
Let's not assume government-as-enemy; it dooms us to mediocre governance. Let's replace those elements of government which would foster dystopia with heroic individuals who will appoint, campaign, legislate, insist upon and welcome challenges to everything it does.
And meanwhile, let's continue to confront the unscrupulous players in both government and business that would abuse data for illicit gain.

AnonymouS

"Let's not assume government-as-enemy; it dooms us to mediocre governance," words that really cover a lot of ground. The dissonance gets louder when speaking truth to power lives in an echo chamber -- so truth in government is a prime motivation for holding all people to their oath on the record, in public, and as reported through the media. I think both America Medic, Inc., and Fox Broadcasting coordinated with the Trump campaign and administration to slant the information to the American public. Add to that, the truth of the Communications for the White House being skewed by Sarah Sanders-Huckabee, with constant misrepresentations of the facts, and all the dystopia with the percentage of the population that has bought into that type of governance! Consider the source!!

Anonymous

Similar to the metaphor of “Boiling a Frog Alive” - if you do something slowly and systematically, the American people won’t even notice that the United States became a full-force totalitarian state in less than 20 years. This is what our children inherited from this generation of parents. The government-watchdogs need the tools and funding to police this clear & present danger to every American.

Anonymous

Although great people with great intentions serve as police officers, federal agents and government servants - the “leadership” of these agencies don’t subscribe to the American model of government - a constitutional “rule of law” model. That’s the real scary part here. These leaders perceive themselves as the law, not constitutional statutes that restrain their authority. There are really not sufficient government-watchdogs (or penalties) to make them follow constitutional statutes. Why is this dangerous? These agency leaders many times “covertly” investigate and punish legal First Amendment activity - the goal is not arrest - the goal punishment without you finding out about it. Currently the United States has no real enforcement mechanism for CoinTelPro style tactics like this.

Anonymous

It's even a greater crisis. Only the older generation knows what it's like to live "untracked" without surveillance. If the older generation doesn't step up, their children and grandchildren won't have the wisdom to fix it. Today's children only know of a "Stasi" like secret police, not familiar with American style policing. The longer we wait, the harder it is to fix since new surveillancevindustries will have more lobbying power in Congress. Any skeptics to the dangers here, should read the congressional "Church Committee Reports" from the 1970's. 2019 is far more dangerous in regards to unchecked surveillance abuses on regular Americans.

Anonymous

A judicial warrant, from a judge, never harms legitimate investigations. If there is a legitimate exigent circumstance (emergency) police officers and agents have little to fear from most prosecutors or judges. Requiring judicial warrants may also improve police work and increase convictions, since it's focused on real evidence instead of a Facebook post or investigatng their neighbors. During the Bush Administration, the FISA Court judges even offered an "after-the-fact warrant". If there wasn't time to get the warrant, officials could do the search and send in the warrant request afidavit later. The result: the Bush Justice Department chose to break the law anyway, skipping the special warrant, even with a legal path available. Probably because it wasn't a legitimate or legal search.

Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

The ACLU has censored my comment again. This time I believe the offending word was "burka".

Anonymous

How many of us, using a touchscreen, have accidentally clicked on the wrong link? So merely trolling someone's web history is not always an accurate analysis. Maybe targeted, maybe not, but after 9/11 there sometimes seemed to be curious links on news pages that were extremely easy to trigger by mistake. Agencies, like the FBI, have a long track record of engineering things like this to either investigate or embarrass those it dislikes. Seems too frequent, over 15+ years, to be coincidental. Wonder if the GAO and IG's are policing this inaccuracy?

Anonymous

The ACLU should invest heavily in investigating shadow-government operations in the Richmond, Virginia area. Under federal direction, the government is choosing what types of jobs that citizens are allowed to have without ones consent or notice. If shadow-government ever has legitimacy, it has to follow advertised or posted laws and our advertised Constitution. Any other shadow operation is a genuine tyranny. This isn't Russia, this is the Richmond, VA area.

Check Peps

Technology can be great tool for better security but it can be used to harm other's privacy. The tech GURU knows how technology works. In addition. to safeguard our security there available tool online to do a background checks online

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