“Imagine being among several hundred million people who wake up each day having to prove they are not a ‘terrorist’ by whatever arbitrary means the government has decided to both define the terms of such a crime.”
No, we’re not talking about a modern version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, where it’s impossible to prove the main character’s innocence because the nature of the charges or the procedure are never made clear. This is how one free internet software facilitator, David Alexander Sugar of GNU Telephony, describes the US government’s latest efforts to snoop on Internet users.
US intelligence agencies feel increasingly frustrated in their snooping efforts by the mushrooming of new communication technologies, which operate on a peer-to-peer basis. This allows individuals to communicate directly with each other rather than through “official” Internet routes.
So the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Justice Department, the National Security Agency and the White House now want greater powers to intercept their citizens’ conversations and messaging. Charlie Savage of the New York Times reports that the US state is seeking new laws to force providers to build in “back doors” for state surveillance.
FBI counsel Valerie Caproni has told Savage that security officials want laws that would “require communications, including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Websites like Facebook and software that allows direct ‘peer to peer’ messaging like Skype – to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order.”
Therefore they are demanding that:
• Communications services that encrypt messages must be able to unscramble them
• Non-US providers must have domestic offices that can perform tapping
• Software developers that allow “peer to peer” communication must redesign their services to allow the state to listen in.
The threat of greater snooping is arousing a storm of opposition. James X. Dempsey, vice president of US Internet policy group, the Centre for Democracy and Technology, warns that “the proposal had ‘huge implications’ and challenged “fundamental elements of the Internet revolution” — including its decentralised design. “They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function.”
Of course, it’s not the first time that the US state has introduced legislation to help it snoop on its citizens. The Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act was passed in 1994 to help its spooks make the transition from the fixed line copper wire phone system to digital networks and mobile phones. The FBI spent millions of dollars on its “Going Dark” programme in 2008-10 to allow it to intercept such communications.
In ancient Greek mythology, there was a poisonous serpent-like water beast called the Hydra, which had nine heads. If one of them was cut off, the Hydra grew another nine. Killing the Hydra was one of Hercules twelve tasks. Today’s communication revolutions present a million-headed hydra which state agencies are desperately seeking to control.
There can be no doubt that state forces internationally have a Herculean task in their efforts to spy on the multi-platform communications of the Internet age. But that does not mean we should treat the threat of new legislation, either in the United States or here in the UK lightly.
Renewed pressure on Internet providers and servers to give the state access to their customers is a sure sign of undemocratic surveillance states in crisis who consider their own citizens as the enemy within.
A World to Win secretary