Obama’s New Plan to Wiretap the Internet

"We’ll look a lot more like China than America after this."

If President Obama asked you to renovate your house to include a new, tiny room where a government agent could sleep and listen to all of your family’s conversations—and could do so in secret, without you ever knowing whether the agent was there or not—how would you feel? Would you protest? Or would you build the room … and simply stop having candid discussions with your own family?

Luckily, President Obama wants to do no such thing. Unluckily, he wants to do something very similar.

He wants your favorite websites—Facebook and Google, and more —to revamp their systems so that government agents can easily plug into them via a backdoor and monitor your IMs, your DMs, your emails, and all the other communication you use on the Internet.

Basically: He wants the Internet rebuilt, piece by piece, so the government can more easily spy on you.

Charlie Savage outlines the proposal in today’s New York Times:

The new proposal focuses on strengthening wiretap orders issued by judges. Currently, such orders instruct recipients to provide technical assistance to law enforcement agencies, leaving wiggle room for companies to say they tried but could not make the technology work. Under the new proposal, providers could be ordered to comply, and judges could impose fines if they did not.

Under the proposal, officials said, for a company to be eligible for the strictest deadlines and fines — starting at $25,000 a day — it must first have been put on notice that it needed surveillance capabilities, triggering a 30-day period to consult with the government on any technical problems.

Such notice could be the receipt of its first wiretap order or a warning from the attorney general that it might receive a surveillance request in the future, officials said, arguing that most small start-ups would never receive either.

And gee, it’s swell they don’t want “small start-ups” to suffer under the new rules—hurray for entrepreneurs!—but still, it seems like Americans should be concerned by rules that require our very communications systems to be built to allow government eavesdropping. (To be fair, the phone companies already operate under that requirement, but those rules haven’t applied to web firms, or to web-based VOIP phones.) As one of Savage’s sources says in today’s article, “We’ll look a lot more like China than America after this.”

What’s the problem with Obama’s proposal?

The underlying presumption that you only get to have the secrets that government allows you to keep. I haven’t built that room for the government in my house. I haven’t handed over the house keys to the FBI. Perhaps falsely, I feel secure in my surroundings. I understand the government’s interest in investigating crimes and terrorism, and I want the government to be successful at that endeavor. That doesn’t mean I have to actually put out a welcome mat, though.

It also makes it easy for the bad guys to get your stuff. “At the very time when the nation is concerned about cybersecurity, the FBI proposal has the potential to make our communications less secure,” says Joe Hall, a senior staff technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Once you build a wiretap capability into products and services, the bad guys will find a way to use it.”

It’s a pretty big burden on innovating companies. Yes, companies can build the wiretapping system for the FBI. “But to do so costs money,” says a former agent.

The Obama Administration is probably well-intentioned in its efforts. It wants to solve crime and terrorism. Fine.  But it never hurts to resist the government’s new ways of reaching into your life.