The Privacy BlogThoughts on privacy, security, and other stuff.

CAT | Legislation

Email Privacy Hearing Set To Go Before The House On Tuesday | WebProNews

The House Judiciary Committee is going to be discussing the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. There is a chance that they will strengthen it.

This act was written decades ago, before there were any real cloud solutions. Email was downloaded by your email client, and immediately deleted from the server. They law assumed that any email left on a server more than 180 days had been abandoned, and so no warrant was required for law enforcement to obtain it.

These days, with services like gmail, we tend to keep our email on the servers for years, with no thought that it has been abandoned. Law enforcement is opposing reforms of this law because it would make their work more difficult. Doubtless it would, as does almost any civil liberty.

Earlier this month Zoe Lofgren introduced the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection act, amending ECPA. It would require a warrant to obtain cell phone location information. There is clearly some momentum for reform.

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House panel approves broadened ISP snooping bill | Privacy Inc. – CNET News

Declan McCullagh of CNET is reporting on a bill to require ISPs to maintain massive records on their users. According to the article this bill requires commercial Internet providers to retain “customers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and temporarily-assigned IP addresses”.

They are calling it the “Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011″ in a flagrent attempt to make it politically difficult to vote against it even though the bill has noting directly to do with Internet pornography or protecting children.

Were this bill to become law, it might cause real problems for the growth of public Wi-Fi where there is no user authentication. That would be a huge leap backwards for a very possitive trend of late.

Of course, criminals will continue to be trivially able to circumvent such tracking efforts making this primarily a mechanism for gathering information on innocent persons without any hint of suspicion or probably cause.

It is absolutely un-American to require every citizen to submit to continuous tracking and monitoring on the possibility that some tiny fraction of us will commit a crime. Law enforcement always lobbies hard for such provisions. Make sure your voice is heard that you value your privacy and your rights.

Contact your Representitive and Senators if this is something you feel strongly about.

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The EFF has an excellent article on eight reasons why government regulation of cryptography is a bad idea.

The short answer is: the bad guys can easily get it and use it anyway, and it will make security for the rest of us much worse (not including the big brother surveillance  and constitutional issues).

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Technology Firms Back Privacy Bill – WSJ.com

It looks like many technology companies recognize that the writing is on the wall and that some kind of consumer privacy legislation will come down the pipe at some point.

They are endorsing this one (with some suggested changes) because it adopts a self-regulatory program, rather than requiring specific actions.

It is a tricky balance. On the one hand self-regulation is notoriously ineffective and self serving. On the other hand, detailed regulation is almost always out dated before it is passed and does at least as much damage as good.

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This NYTimes article discusses a bill which the Obama administration is proposing to submit to congress. The general background of the bill is that evolving technology has made it more difficult for law enforcement to conduct effective wiretaps and other intercepts because much of the targeted communication now takes place on the Internet and is often encrypted.

The actual text of the proposed bill does not appear to be available, but the article lists the following likely requirements.

  1. Communications services that encrypt messages must have a way to unscramble them.
  2. Foreign-based providers that do business inside the United States must install a domestic office capable of performing intercepts.
  3. Developers of software that enables peer-to-peer communication must redesign their service to allow interception.

The first of these is similar to the CALEA law which requires telecommunications carriers to design their services to enable automated real time intercepts. While this generally sounds reasonable when “we” say it, the idea is more ominous when coming from some other governments.

The second of these feels uncomfortably familiar. See my past blog posts (and here)on the attempts of privacy hostile countries to require similar concessions from RIM.

The third proposal is completely outrageous. In effect it says that I may not speak in a way which is unintelligible to the wire tappers. As a colleague quipped “I am hiring Navajo code talkers.” This would require a back door be inserted in to cryptography tools. Experience shows that any crypto system with such a back door will be breached and then left vulnerable to the enormous number of criminal hackers on the Internet today.

In 1993 the US Government proposed a system called the “Clipper Chip” which would provide all encryption for personal computers, but to which the US Government would have back door access. This was a terrible idea then, it was widely ridiculed, and suffered a well justified death by 1996. This third proposal would be much worse. It is asking huge numbers of non-crypto experts to build back doors in to their systems. Frankly, the cryptography in most software is already badly broken in many cases. Something as subtle and complex as a secure and effective law enforcement back door would be far beyond their abilities and render currently poor security completely untrustworthy.

All this is not to mention the potential abuse by oppressive regimes, who will pounce on the capability to further crush dissent within their countries. Finally, it will be largely ineffective against serious threats. Very strong and easy to use cryptography is already available world wide, for free (GPG, ZPhone, TrueCrypt, etc.). This is a classic case of damaging the innocent while leaving the guilty and dangerous unaffected.

It seems to me that there is a pendulum swing to these things. Technology cuts both ways. Some times it favors the interceptor and some times it favors the communicator. In most ways the Internet has been a fantastic boon to law enforcement. Cloud computing, email hosts, social networking, open WiFi, and huge hard drive that encourage people to save everything all provide law enforcement with enormous amounts of information they could never have collected in the past.

It may not be shocking to anyone that there is no federal push to make that more difficult to access while pushing to enhance their ability to intercept encrypted communications.

All this is argument about a bill we have not seen yet. Let us hope that the furor that has swirled around it will cause it to be retraced or modified significantly before it is actually delivered to congress.

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