NPR takes a look at the issue of wiretapping the Internet and the privacy and civil liberty questions that it raises:
In the old days, wiretapping was easy: Law enforcement officials just tapped a wire. Even with cell phones, police merely had to take a warrant to the phone company and tell it to tap the number. But now, in this age of Skype and instant messaging, things are a lot trickier, and law enforcement says it needs help.
Federal law already requires tech companies to cooperate with court-ordered surveillance. The problem, says FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni, is that the companies offering services like Web-based e-mail or social networking sometimes can’t cooperate. […]
In 1994, Congress passed a law requiring the new cell phone networks to provide “intercept solutions,” as Caproni puts it. Now, the Obama administration wants a similar requirement for communications systems on the Internet.
The FBI, the Commerce Department and the various spy agencies have been meeting for months to discuss possible legislation, and last week there was a preliminary hearing on the subject in the House of Representatives.
“It was a very weird hearing,” says computer engineer Susan Landau, who testified. She says it was hard to offer analysis because the administration is being vague: “They just haven’t detailed their problems.” […]
Whatever the extent of law enforcement’s problem, she says, the cure may be worse. Landau wrote a book called Surveillance or Security? The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technologies, which argues that built-in eavesdropping systems can open computers up to non-government spying. And the danger isn’t just hypothetical. She points to a case in Greece in which software meant for lawful eavesdropping on the cell phone system allowed somebody to spy on the prime minister and other officials.
“Somebody went into the switch and wiretapped these 100 senior officials for a period of 10 months,” Landau says. “It was discovered when a text message went awry, and quickly stopped. But we still to this day don’t know who did it.”