If the federal government has its way, the vast array of social networking sites and other communications technologies such as Facebook, BlackBerry, and Skype, to name a few, would be forced by law to incorporate technology enabling the government easily to eavesdrop on all such communications. Under a proposal being pushed by the Obama Administration, existing federal law dating back to the 1994 “Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act” (”CALEA” for short), would be expanded to include all technologies that have developed since that law took effect a decade and a half ago. In fact, if such law were to become effective, certain technologies, such as Skype, which use encryption to ensure that computers assisting in “peer-to-peer” connections cannot “listen in,” would be illegal because the encryption thus employed could not be surveilled by the government (or at least, not readily surveilled).
The fact is, this latest government proposal is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Court documents establish clearly that existing government powers to conduct electronic surveillance pursuant to court orders – or foreign intelligence surveillance not requiring such orders – are rarely, if ever, thwarted by encryption. Still, the Administration is raising the same, “the-sky-is-falling” tactics used in 1994 to scare the Congress into granting it these new, expanded powers to control communications technology.
A number of foreign governments, including India and Saudi Arabia, are battling companies like RIM, the manufacturer of the widely popular BlackBerry devices, because the companies are refusing to provide a way for those governments to eavesdrop on users of the devices. However, concern with protecting the privacy of one’s electronic communications from unwanted government snooping clearly is not — or should not be — limited to foreign governments. Our own government is pushing for the very same powers.