Wednesday, September 29, 2010

FBI Wants to Read Your Facebook Messages

Being a programmer and not the biggest fan of government intervention in general due to the unintended consequences it usually delivers, I think this is an awful idea. Imagine that every app that is designed, every website that is built, and every tool that is used to allow people to communicate required additional features to allow the government to decrypt the messages it sends and receives. This would take valuable time to build for each developer, would be incredibly expensive overall and would create a barrier to entry for the little guy who wants to learn to program and release some software. Additionally, it could create new technical limitations for developers and could seriously stifle flexibility in some cases. This is the type of innovation inhibitor the country does not need, especially in our current economic climate.

Also, what's the point? What would stop a terrorist organization from writing their own program that didn't incorporate the government mandated decryption capabilities? How would they even know? The only software and websites that would comply with such a mandate would likely have no need for such a "protection".

Additionally, government already generally has access to this type of data via subpoena. They can already subpoena Verizon for example to get your text messages, or Google to get your chat messages or emails even if the government doesn't have the power to secretly decrypt the messages themselves. This bill would only force the terrorist communication away from mainstream communication methods and into the underground where subpoena power cannot find it.

All of that aside, opening a hole intended for use only by the government would almost inevitably lead to new security risks all over the place exposing personal and privater data to malicious eyes (A.K.A. domestic and international terrorists).

Where is this coming from?
Knowing this, why would the government want to implement such a bill? The only reason I can imagine would be to poke a foot in the door to something the government has wanted for quite some time, and has seen some success at achieving.

With the unique challenges that fighting "terror" (which is really a vague term for anyone who opposes the U.S. in its current form and could potentially do the country or its citizens harm), we have had to sacrifice some of our principles to be effective. Not only have we adopted a policy of "pre-emptive war" with other countries and groups (possibly Iran now too if we aren't careful), but the government has also expressed interest in identifying potential patterns in communication in order to identify 'terror' before it happens. The only problem is they are applying this pattern detection to political groups critical of the government, which happen to be the ones who fight for real change, protest, or push back at big brother at all. The term terrorism was redefined with the passing of the Patriot Act, and today it is quite easy to label a group of fed up citizens who protest government policy as domestic terrorists (see article from the ACLU). Knowing that any citizen who becomes politically involved can be easily labeled a domestic terrorist, passing of legislation like this means those individuals can be spied on legally not only over the phone, text message, email, etc but in private online communities as well. Don't believe the government would label a peaceful political activist as a terrorist? There are already over 1 million names on the terror watch list. What about mistakes?

And even if they pass legislation making it legal only when a warrant is issues, it's not like they haven't taken it too far before:

There are hundreds of videos, documentaries and articles like the ones I've posted here outlining details about how the government has taken their intelligence authority too far. Unfortunately it has often been to the detriment of the American people it is intended to protect.

Update: New related info out today. The EFF's FOIA request shows that internal government memos encourage agents to befriend people on facebook in an effort to receive information about them (without a warrant or even probable cause required of course). Source: