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Federal law enforcement and national security officials want to hunt down criminals and terrorists in the places where they have fled in order to escape telephone wiretapping. And that’s why the authorities want to be able to wiretap services such as BlackBerry emails, social networks such as Facebook, and peer-to-peer messaging services such as Skype.

The New York Times reported that law enforcement will seek to get lawmakers to approve a bill that will expand their powers to monitor computer communications that are currently havens for secret communication. Jack Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the newspaper that the proposal has huge implications for the structure of the internet.

The telephone network was easy to tap because phone companies controlled it through centralized switches. The FBI could place wiretaps on any phone line in the country. But the internet is decentralized. With peer-to-peer technologies, users communicate directly with each other. There is no “central switch” that could be the interception point for a wiretap.

If companies such as Skype and Facebook are forced to design holes in their networks so that FBI officials can listen into conversations, that will re-centralize the networks, raise costs, and possibly introduce vulnerabilities to the software that hackers could exploit.

These problems are so fundamental that law enforcement has been stymied. If they think there is a way around these problems, that would be a new development. But there is no indication that is the case. If a law were to pass without ensuring civil liberty and security, it could erode users’ fundamental freedoms and could hobble the U.S. version of the internet, forcing companies to move overseas. Hopefully the feds will give this bill a lot of though before they move forward.

[Image credit: counter surveillance devices]


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