Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Obama administration wants easier access to your online communications:

Federal law enforcement and national security officials are preparing to seek sweeping new regulations for the Internet, arguing that their ability to wiretap criminal and terrorism suspects is “going dark” as people increasingly communicate online instead of by telephone.

Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.


Glenn Greenwald responds:

In early August, two dictatorial (and U.S.-allied) Gulf states — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — announced a ban on the use of Blackberries because, as the BBC put it, “[b]oth nations are unhappy that they are unable to monitor such communications via the handsets.” Those two governments demand the power to intercept and monitor every single form of communication. No human interaction may take place beyond their prying ears. Since Blackberry communication data are sent directly to servers in Canada and the company which operates Blackberry — Research in Motion — refused to turn the data over to those governments, “authorities [] decided to ban Blackberry services rather than continue to allow an uncontrolled and unmonitored flow of electronic information within their borders.” That’s the core mindset of the Omnipotent Surveillance State: above all else, what is strictly prohibited is the ability of citizens to communicate in private; we can’t have any “uncontrolled and unmonitored flow of electronic information.”

That controversy generated substantial coverage in the U.S. media, which depicted it as reflective of the censorship and all-consuming surveillance powers of those undemocratic states. But the following week, The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Richard Falkenrath — a top-level Homeland Security official in the Bush administration and current principal in the private firm of former Bush DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff — expressing support for the UAE’s Blackberry ban. Falkenrath asserted that “[a]mong law enforcement investigators and intelligence officers [in the U.S.], the Emirates’ decision met with approval, admiration and perhaps even a touch of envy.” New Internet technologies — including voice-over-Internet calls (such as Skype) and text messaging — are increasingly difficult for governments to monitor, and Falkenrath noted, correctly, that the UAE “is in no way unique in wanting a back door into the telecommunications services used inside its borders to allow officials to eavesdrop on users.” The U.S. Government is every bit as eager as the UAE and Saudi Arabia to ensure full and unfettered access to everyone’s communications…

The tyrannical mentality of the UAE, Saudi and Bush DHS authorities are far from aberrational. They are perfectly representative of how the current U.S. administration thinks as well: every communication and all other human transactions must be subject to government surveillance. Nothing may be beyond the reach of official spying agencies. There must be no such thing as true privacy from government authorities.

Anyone who thinks that is hyperbole should simply read two articles today describing efforts of the Obama administration to obliterate remaining vestiges of privacy. The first is this New York Times article by Charlie Savage, which describes how the Obama administration will propose new legislation to mandate that the U.S. Government have access to all forms of communications, “including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct ‘peer to peer’ messaging like Skype.” In other words, the U.S. Government is taking exactly the position of the UAE and the Saudis: no communications are permitted to be beyond the surveillance reach of U.S. authorities.

Now please set your irony meters for stun. You know the administration condemned this when it was done by others, right? Yep.

The United States said it was disappointed that the United Arab Emirates planned to cut off key BlackBerry services, noting that the Gulf nation was setting a dangerous precedent in limiting freedom of information.

“We are committed to promoting the free flow of information,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “We think it’s integral to an innovative economy.” …

“It’s about what we think is an important element of democracy, human rights and freedom of information and the flow of information in the 21st century,” Crowley said, adding that the United States makes the same argument to Iran and China.

“We think it sets a dangerous precedent,” he said. “You should be opening up societies to these new technologies that have the opportunity to empower people rather than looking to see how you can restrict certain technologies.”

One could feel a bit better about this sort of thing if there were meaningful limits on the government’s authority to engage in surveillance, but those limits no longer exist. The NSA’s data mining program obliterated those limits years ago. Do you trust the Obama administration with that power? Did you trust the Bush administration with that power?

Do you trust any administration to have the power to intercept messages without a warrant and without having to show probable cause? Because remember, there is no legal recourse once they’ve done so because if you challenge those actions in court they immediately invoke the State Secrets Privilege and the case gets dismissed. Orwell is rolling over in his grave.