Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The End of Internet Privacy?

Law enforcement and fearmongering politicians are back with yet another attempt to destroy privacy on the Internet. This time, rather than using the typical "we're protecting you from terrorists" mantra, the
proposed law claims to be necessary in the fight again child pornography!!  

Briefly, the bill would require Internet service providers to keep 12-month logs of customers' names, credit card information, and other identifying information that are tied to temporarily assigned network addresses. 

So how, might you ask, will tracking American citizens, and storing everything they do over the Internet help stop child pornography? Perhaps it goes without saying that I fail to see how tracking the entire Internet, and all those that use it, will somehow help lock up child pornographers and pedophiles. 

But of course, that's not the worst part about it. What's truly frightening is this legislation, as so much in the Patriot Act, treats ALL Americans as criminals until proven otherwise. If law enforcement feels it has a need to find out who visited a website or posted a particular bit of content online, it can.

Are we really ready to give away this much privacy and that much power to the government? Let's be honest here, how can anyone in the world, with a straight face, say our government has LESS surveillance capabilities in the past, rather than MORE??? (an argument often made by law enforcement)

If I remember correctly, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed a succession of laws that has made it far easier for law enforcement and security officials to spy on online and other communications with or without warrants.

We already have widespread, massive abuse of National Security Letters (NSLs) – which allow the FBI, without a court order, to obtain telecommunication, financial and credit records deemed “relevant” to a government investigation. The FBI issues about 50,000 a year and an internal watchdog has repeatedly found the flagrant misuse of this power. 

Here's a few clips from an excellent article in PC World on this legislation and the reaction of privacy advocates: 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that the same data could become available to civil litigants in private lawsuits -- whether it's the recording industry trying to identify downloaders, a company trying to uncover and retaliate against an anonymous critic, or a divorce lawyer looking for dirty laundry. The group, which is asking people to contact lawmakers about the issue, also says that the database created would be a new and valuable target for hackers. 

"Essentially what this bill is attempting to do is make it such that you can never post anything online without there being a record indicating that you posted it," said Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney with the EFF.

Gregory Nojeim, director of the Project and Freedom Security and Technology at the Center for Democracy and Technology, also doesn't see that the bill, if eventually made into law, would markedly help catch criminals involved in child pornography. 

"It's likely that child pornography cases will be a teeny tiny percentage of the cases in which law enforcement uses data that is retained under the mandate in this bill," he said.Instead, he thinks government and law enforcement entities will use the data to investigate other things such as criminal drug activity or for intelligence investigations.

So while it appears the government has been asking ISPs for online information for a while, it's also not clear exactly what information all ISPs are currently tracking. 

"It depends on what ISP you're talking about but not all ISPs [currently] log network address assignment," said Bankston. "For example, T-Mobile does not log IP address assignments through its mobile devices [and] based on testimony in an earlier data retention hearing there's at least one major cable internet provider that does not log IP address assignments." There's also a question of how long the ISPs track data.

Every right-thinking person abhors child pornography. To combat it, legislators have brought through committee a poorly conceived, over-broad Congressional bill, The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011. It is arguably the biggest threat to civil liberties now under consideration in the United States. The potential victims: everyone who uses the Internet.

A better name for the child pornography bill would be The Encouragement of Blackmail by Law Enforcement Act. At issue is how to catch child pornographers. It's too hard now, say the bill's backers, and I can sympathize. It's their solution that appalls me: under language approved 19 to 10 by a House committee, the firm that sells you Internet access would be required to track all of your Internet activity and save it for 18 months, along with your name, the address where you live, your bank account numbers, your credit card numbers, and IP addresses you've been assigned.

Tracking the private daily behavior of everyone in order to help catch a small number of child criminals is itself the noxious practice of police states. Said an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation: "The data retention mandate in this bill would treat every Internet user like a criminal and threaten the online privacy and free speech rights of every American." Even more troubling is what the government would need to do in order to access this trove of private information: ask for it.

doesn't require that someone be under investigation on child pornography charges in order for police to access their Internet history -- being suspected of any crime is enough…

In Communist countries, where the ruling class routinely dug up embarrassing information on citizens as a bulwark against dissent, the secret police never dreamed of an information trove as perfect for targeting innocent people as a full Internet history. Phrases I've Googled in the course of researching this item include "moral panic about child pornography" and "blackmailing enemies with Internet history." For most people, it's easy enough to recall terms you've searched that could be taken out of context, and of course there are lots of Americans who do things online that are perfectly legal, but would be embarrassing if made public even with context: medical problems and adult pornography are only the beginning. How clueless do you have to be to mandate the creation of a huge database that includes that sort of information, especially in the age of Anonymous and Wikileaks? How naive do you have to be to give government unfettered access to it? Have the bill's 25 cosponsors never heard of J. Edgar Hoover?

As Julian Sanchez recently wrote on a related subject, "In an era in which an unprecedented quantity of information about our daily activities is stored electronically and is retrievable with a mouse click, internal checks on the government's power to comb those digital databases are more important than ever... If we aren't willing to say enough is enough, our privacy will slip away one tweak at a time."

Remember, the Internet is the communication tool of choice now for political activism and organizing. Doesn't the fact that we already know how the FBI and even local law enforcement has abused the Patriot Act by monitoring peaceful protest groups and environmentalists and in some cases attempted to prevent protest activities (particularly against the war) provide us with one of the clear motives behind our ever expanding surveillance state?

I for one am not only concerned about our government's efforts to stifle dissent and minimize protest, but also the more general effect such a surveillance state has on human consciousness. I'm not talking new age metaphysics here...I'm talking about basic liberty and freedom...and how when such privacy is taken, power is taken...and how might citizens be effected - adversely - by the knowledge that EVERYTHING they do, whether its writing, speaking, or now searching, is being monitored (and even stored) by the "authorities"?

As I have asked many times before on this blog, is the loss of freedom, privacy, and quality of life a worthwhile trade-off for unproven protections from hyped threats and unproven "solutions"?

This increasingly intrusive surveillance state threatens the very concept of privacy, particularly privacy as a necessary requisite for liberty, which I believe it is. With privacy comes control, with control comes at least a semblance of power. The Internet is where so much of the future of political dialogue, activism, and communication will occur...I think it would be a gross mistake to allow open access to the government...we've seen how the FBI has used such monitoring capabilities when it comes to the telephone or wireless computers.

I question the very premise that the government benefits from, or certainly that we need, such an all encompassing surveillance state. Remember, our military, our CIA, our spying agencies (such as NSA) are every bit corporate as they are governmental: in some cases more so. So complete is the merger that it's the same people who switch seamlessly back and forth between governmental agencies and their private "partners". This means we have not only a vast Secret Government, but one that operates with virtually no democratic accountability and is driven not by National Security concerns but by its own always-expanding private profits and need for greater control.

All this begs the question: who is really benefiting from this expanding surveillance state and why? 

Glenn Greenwald, writing about a similar effort last year, encapsulates PERFECTLY my thoughts, stating

"What makes this trend all the more pernicious is that at exactly the same time that the Government is demanding greater and greater access to what you do and say, it is hiding its own conduct behind an always-higher and more impenetrable wall of secrecy. Everything you do and say must be accessible to them; you can have no secrets from them. But everything they do -- including even criminal acts such as torture, assassinations and warrantless surveillance -- is completely off-limits to you, deemed "state secrets" that not even courts can review in order to determine their legality. This is all driven by Francis Bacon's observation that "knowledge is power": the idea is to make sure that they have full knowledge of what you do (i.e., full power over it), while you have no knowledge about what they do (i.e., no power).

For those insisting that the Government must have the technological ability to eavesdrop on any and all communications in order to stop Terrorists and criminals, what are you going to do about in-person communications? By this logic, the Government should install eavesdropping devices in all private homes and public spaces, provided they promise only to listen in when the law allows them to do so (I believe there was a book written about that once). For those insisting that the Government must have the physical ability to spy on all communications, what objections could one have to such a proposal? We've developed this child-like belief that all Bad Things can be prevented -- we can be Kept Safe from all dangers -- provided we just vest enough power in the Government to protect us all. What we lose from that mentality, however, is quite vast yet rarely counted. A central value of the Internet was that it was supposed to enable the flow of information free from the surveillance and control of governmental and other authorities.

More to come on this issue...and legislation...

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