Thursday, August 21, 2008

Internet Eavesdropping: A Brave New World of Wiretapping

Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau write on Scientific American:

As long as people have engaged in private conversations, eavesdroppers have tried to listen in. When important matters were discussed in parlors, people slipped in under the eaves—literally within the “eaves­drop”—to hear what was being said. When conversations moved to telephones, the wires were tapped. And now that so much human activity takes place in cyberspace, spies have infiltrated that realm as well.

Unlike earlier, physical frontiers, cyberspace is a human construct. The rules, designs and investments we make in cyberspace will shape the ways espionage, privacy and security will interact. Today there is a clear movement to give intelligence activities a privileged position, building in the capacity of authorities to intercept cyberspace communications. The advantages of this trend for fighting crime and terrorism are obvious.

The drawbacks may be less obvious. For one thing, adding such intercept infrastructure would undermine the nimble, bottom-up structure of the Internet that has been so congenial to business innovation: its costs would drive many small U.S. In­­ternet service providers (ISPs) out of business, and the top-down control it would require would threaten the nation’s role as a leader and innovator in communications.

Furthermore, by putting too much emphasis on the capacity to intercept Internet communications, we may be undermining civil liberties. We may also damage the security of cyberspace and ultimately the security of the nation. If the U.S. builds extensive wiretapping into our communications system, how do we guarantee that the facilities we build will not be misused? Our police and intelligence agencies, through corruption or merely excessive zeal, may use them to spy on Americans in violation of the U.S. Constitution. And, with any intercept capability, there is a risk that it could fall into the wrong hands. Criminals, terrorists and foreign intelligence services may gain access to our surveillance facilities and use them against us. The architectures needed to protect against these two threats are different.

Such issues are important enough to merit a broad national debate. Unfortunately, though, the public’s ability to participate in the discussion is impeded by the fog of secrecy that surrounds all intelligence, particularly message interception (“signals intelligence”).

More here.


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