Why the Feds Want To Wiretap the Internet, and Why They Can't

Here's today's jarring news from the NY Times: federal law enforcement and national security officials want to force companies like Facebook, Skype, and BlackBerry to let them wiretap your accounts.

The feds are seeking sweeping authority over "all services that enable communications." That means email, IM, any social network. Your pokes, tweets, and pings would all be subject to eavesdropping With a simple wiretap order, they'd be able to listen in on any online conversation. If you thought Facebook's privacy policy was dodgy, it's got nothing on what Uncle Sam's dreaming up.

FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni makes the point that this doesn't amount to a police state, since the same legal precedents would apply as do currently in phone taps:

"We're talking about lawfully authorized intercepts," said Valerie E. Caproni, general counsel for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "We're not talking expanding authority. We're talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security."

The argument is that as terrorists move off of phones and onto the web, the boys in blue need access to their online communications. Which is never going to work.

Put aside, for a moment, the gross privacy concerns here, the questionable constitutionality, and this country's unfortunate recent history of warrantless wiretaps that recorded hours and hours of purely domestic conversations. Because despite all the lawsuits this will ultimately invite, the biggest hurdle is going to be a technical one.

Essentially the government wants to mandate that communications services that encrypt messages—like, say, a BlackBerry's BBM—have to be able to unscramble them. Additionally, any and all peer-to-peer software must redesigned to allow the FBI to intercept messages. Companies are on their own to figure out how to implement the changes.

It's not that retrofitting VoIP and peer-to-peer services with backdoors would be impossible. It would just be incredibly costly and unconscionably dangerous, intentionally creating vulnerabilities that hackers could—and will—exploit. Besides which, that same open source encryption code has been protected by the First Amendment as free speech since 2000.

Not to mention that the US government has no authority over companies that don't have US offices. So even if they're able to restructure the internet here for optimal spying, the criminal element will have plenty of unregulated international options.

This argument isn't even about the future of the internet. The internet is an established entity, and demanding massive changes in its structure is an untenable proposition. And while I'm in favor of doing what it takes to stymie criminal activity, the government's ill-equipped—both technologically and morally—to enact this kind of change. [NY Times]