Powers of surveillance by governmental agencies is at an all time high, yet the people of America seem uninformed, or at least ambivalent toward, the ever-shrinking rights to private communication with people or organizations. The mainstream media is quick to point out when data is stolen by hackers looking to steal money, yet they seem to ignore the fact that our government has access to every email, text message, phone location records, and even phone calls between individuals. The director of the FBI, James Comey, is seeking to expand their capabilities to include direct access to cellphones, tablets, and computers, via an expansion of the CALEA act. This request is in the interest of “public safety”, against “potential terrorist threats”, according to Mr. Comey.
This is a slippery slope, one in which it is nearly impossible to come back from. Where does the individual right of “reasonable expectation of privacy” begin? Should Americans lose all of their privacy to prevent future hypothetical attacks? How long before the government relaxes the restraints, and starts using these tools to convict Americans of non-terroristic crimes? Most people do not know the extent of the surveillance capabilities of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and local law enforcement agencies, and our government likes that just fine.
“FBI wants Congress to mandate backdoors in tech devices to facilitate surveillance,” Homeland Security News Wire, October 20, 2014.
Student Researcher: Chelsea McCampbell, Indian River State College
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., Indian River State College
Here is a story that has slipped by the mainstream news that is of particular interest to anyone who feels their communications should be private. It began in 1994. The “Communication Assistance for Law enforcement Act”, or CALEA, required carriers and manufacturers of communications gear to modify existing systems and to design all new equipment with built-in surveillance capabilities for law enforcement purposes. This was largely in response to the advent of digital communications, such as texting and Voice-over-Internet-Provider, or VOIP, which were in their infancy at the time, but were already making things difficult for law enforcement. The act required large carriers to comply with wiretapping requests, and to provide a usable format for law enforcement to be able to use in courts of law. The FBI was behind in the technological curve and sought a balancing of the equation through sweeping legislation which has the potential to invade the privacy of every single American. Freedom loses round one. Now for round two.
FBI Director James Comey is now asking Congress to modify CALEA to include all new tech companies to build backdoors into new products for easier law enforcement access, in essence asking for any new devices to be open to law enforcement, no matter the technology involved. They want all new tech companies to have the same reporting requirements as AT&T and other major carriers. It would require that manufacturers create back doors to allow direct access to an individual’s computer, cell phone, tablet, ebook reader, music listening device, anything connected to internet. The new requirements would also request the makers of encryption programs, which are at the very heart of private communication, to create and make a set of “master keys”, and hand them over to law enforcement.
This is a departure from the original spirit of the text of CALEA. The new additions to the CALEA act would greatly increase the powers of law enforcement, while removing our ability to communicate freely from the fear of being spied on by our government. Freedom of speech, of the written word, and the very concept of private communication is at stake, yet very little from the mainstream media has been spoken about the particulars of this request for expansion of governmental control over the citizens of the United States.
Director Comey claims that his request for the new changes is primarily to protect American citizens from terrorism. This is a broad term, one that elicits fear, and one that often goes hand-in-hand with laws that restrict, rather than expand, the personal liberties of Americans. The Patriot Act in 2001 was passed in a fervor of anti-terrorist extreme nationalism, following the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers, and it restricted more freedoms than any other before its creation. It gave the government unprecedented powers of domestic surveillance, and much of what they did had no need for warrants, as long as the action was related to the war on terror. Fear allowed the American people to step into the surveillance era, all in the name of public safety. Freedom takes a step backwards.
Technology is progressing at an unprecedented rate, with ever more powerful, smaller, faster devices becoming cheap enough for almost anyone to afford. Smartphones have become the norm, as have the citizens’ acceptance and reliance upon them. People store an incredible amount of sensitive personal data on these devices. They should not be made with built in vulnerabilities. The certainty that hackers could exploit these new vulnerabilities is another reason that CALEA should not be expanded beyond its current boundaries.
Economically, exports of American technology will slow, due to a lack of willingness of other countries and their citizens to purchase goods that will allow backdoor access to their data. Apple and Google have both previously announced their intention to make their products more secure from all types of intrusion. Their announcements were carried by the mainstream media, yet there was nothing about the governmental attack on personal liberties in the area of private communication.
As the walls of private communications crumble, our trust in the government erodes as well, creating discord as people push back against restrictive and intrusive policies. American citizens and the American government have wound up on opposite sides of the issue of freedom and private communication, when there was supposed to be only one side, the side of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But that’s not real news.