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You got a warrant for that?

by on27 March 2013 2298 times
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When I was a little kid I used to watch the cop and spy shows on TV. They were always full of exciting exploits where the good guys always triumphed over the bad buys without ever impugning on their morals. As I grew older the shows started turning more and more dark. The good guy still won, but they were more in the mold of anti-heroes than the white hats I watched a few years ago. The idea of doing morally questionable things in the name of good became more and more popular. Even in books this theme was growing, two one of my favorite fictional characters were very much unethical (yet in some ways moral), one was a criminal, The Stainless Steel Rat, and the other was Elric of Melnibone’ who helped sack his own kingdom to get his Fiancé (there is more to the stories if you want to read them).  Now TV and movies are full of this type of “hero” we see them in real life, people who break the law in the name of good. One of the biggest examples of this is the collective known as Anonymous.

So why the little stroll down memory lane and a recap of my TV and reading habits? Well, you see right now in many places in government people that grew up watching and reading the same things that I (and many others) did are making decisions. They are making the kind of decision where ethics are cast aside in the name of a shadowy pretense of good; where the ends are supposed to be justified by the means. This is even if they really do not know what the ends are… I am talking about the many new surveillance bills that take personal privacy and also the normal due process of law and cast them both out of the window. We have already talked at length about some of these and the core issues at stake; the reasonable expectation of privacy and data ownership. These two key items are of great concern as neither has truly been established although recently it was ruled that a simple National Security Letter was no longer good enough to make companies cough up personal data and files.

Instead lawmakers (at the urgings of others) are working to establish laws that will further muddy these and also muddy what is and what is not a national security matter (they are trying to get copyright in there under IP laws). These are laws like CISPA, SOPA, PIPA, and even more that have not become public yet. These proposed laws are frightening in the way they attack basic rights and principals and also how they impact innovation and progress. Right now the FBI wants laws to give them the power to force real-time surveillance into all forms of electronic communication. This is not the typical Title III Wiretap request that they use now, it is a full time system that every ISP, cloud storage provider, Internet Chat Company and even gaming companies would be required to install.

The FBI claims that their existing powers are not enough and they need more to fight crime. If they get their way everything from dropbox to the chat feature in Scrabble will be accessible to them in real time. It will also appear to bypass any warrant or wiretap authorization requirements (although the Supreme Court of Canada ruled differently which is good for those in Canada). It seems very odd that the same group of people that know they have to have a warrant to read your traditional mail, or dig through your paper files wants to be able to dig through your digital communication without a warrant or wiretap authorization. Again this comes down to who has the right to view your data and your communication. In the real world to listen into a phone conversation you need wiretap authorization even for a cellular conversation. It would logically follow that you should have one to intercept any form of digital communication. The problem is that lawmakers want to argue that because you do not own the storage, servers or encryption used to process this information it is fair game (it is all about reasonable expectation of privacy and data ownership). They often point to clauses in the terms and conditions for services like DropBox, Gmail and Google Docs that say you do not maintain ownership of the data stored on their servers. While these are thin excuses to many, they appear to be enough for many lawmakers as they push for these bills to pass.

However there is more to this than even the terrifying damage to our rights to privacy and protection from domestic spying; there is also one of cost and the damage to the internet as a new tool for bridging cultures and sharing information. To some people the evolution of the internet as a communication and sharing tool is seen as a threat to their business model or control on the market (yes we are talking about the MPAA, RIAA, BSA and others). These same groups are very heavily connected to our lawmakers and have been very effective at spreading the fantasy of copyright violation as a national security concern. What they have never talked about is the cost to the consumer not only in terms of lost privacy, but in actual dollars. After all someone has to pay for this and you can bet none of them will be footing the bill. Instead this will fall back on the ISPs and other service providers who are going to pass this along to the consumer either as an increase in actual cost of service or something else (perhaps requiring you to agree that you no longer own anything posted on their servers…). Make no mistake these systems are exceptionally expensive to put in place and maintain and the consumer will pay for them.

Right now we have a very dangerous blend in control of our technological future. We have people that are afraid of the technology because it threatens their business model, lawmakers that either ignorant of the way things work or think like an “anti-hero”, corporations that know the monetary value of their customer data, and a President that is like a kid with a bunch of new gadgets… Anything is possible moving forward in terms of how much or how little we lose when communicating online. What needs to happen is for someone to fight to establish the internet as a protected means of communication in the same way that the US Post, Land Line phone service and other more traditional items are. It is not acceptable that the FBI or any other agency try to bypass anyone’s rights simply because they use an online service. If we do not see these rights outlined soon we are possibly looking at a regression in technology instead of a progression which will have an economic impact as well.

Who would have thought that a generation of people that grew up on the anti-hero would now be in charge or advising the people in charge on matters as important as our privacy and rights against unjustified search and seizure? I know that as a technical journalist and consultant I have been able to see this world from both sides and I worry about the direction that we are heading. I also hope that we can stop this movement and perhaps turn things around before it is too late.

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Last modified on 08 April 2013
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