Here's today's jarring news from the New York Times: US law enforcement and national security officials want to force companies like Facebook, Skype and BlackBerry to let them wiretap your accounts.
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 authorised 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 back doors 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 established structure is an untenable proposition. And while I'm in favour of doing what it takes to stymie criminal activity, the government's ill-equipped - both technologically and morally - to enact this kind of change. [NYT]