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George Orwell was an optimist.

After seeing the privacy-shattering updates that the FBI wants top websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google to implement, I’m wondering if his dystopic 1984 didn’t go far enough. After all, in mythical Oceania, it was only televisions that watched citizens back. Now the US government is seeking the right to observe messages and activity in almost any website or service that enables communication.

The FBI is requesting backdoors into the social sites and communication services that Americans use every single day, CNET reported today. (Backdoors are means of bypassing normal security and encryption protections to easily access databases and servers. The term is commonly used to describe viruses or Trojans that hackers use to access computer systems.)

The reason the FBI is seeking this increase in observing capability: Wiretaps are increasingly useless. The staple of television crime drama for decades, and one of law enforcement’s principal ways of surveilling citizens suspected of crimes, wiretaps no longer work. Why? Fewer people are using regular landlines for communication. And cell phones are increasingly smartphones, which are used more for data than for voice communications. So the modes of communication that the existing wiretap law covers are becoming archaic. Wiretaps will soon be a thing of the past … unless the US government can extend the same principles into online communications.


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A backdoor into the heart of the web

Think of your Facebook messages and chats. Any Google+ hangouts you’ve participated in. Your Skype calls, both foreign and domestic. All your email in Gmail or other online email service providers. The Yahoo Messenger conversations you indulged in … even comments on YouTube videos.

Basically, every site and service that allows communication would fall under the scope of the FBI’s new powers. In a web that today is largely a social space, that means huge swaths of everything we do online.

A coming backlash?

Privacy advocates and civil liberties groups won’t take this news lying down. Already, WikiProtest says “this encroachment on online privacy must be fought tooth and nail,” and is encouraging netizens to use privacy-enhancing tools like PGP and TOR. The Electronic Frontier Foundation will also chime in soon.

But what will everyday users do? Will there be a SOPA or ACTA-like backlash? That remains to be seen. The FBI had been trying to implement the backdoor quietly, which seems to have failed. Now it’ll have to go to plan B.

So much for American competitiveness

I can’t imagine a better way to kill US competitiveness in the tech sector abroad. What European, Asian, or South American will want to use a US product such as Google+ or Facebook knowing that the US government has easy access to whatever is said, shared, uploaded, or done there? This could accelerate massive migration away from predominantly American tools and networks.

Do you support extending FBI wiretap powers to social networks online?

Image credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

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