Outside editorial: Wiretapping the Internet must be balanced with privacy concerns

Posted: Monday, October 04, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

It isn't hard to figure out why the Obama administration wants to make it easier for police and spy agencies to eavesdrop on the latest forms of Internet communication. The burden of keeping the nation safe from crooks and terrorists is daunting, especially in an increasingly virtual world, and it's sensible for law enforcement to seek every possible advantage.

But critics are right to ask whether proposed new regulations could pose a threat to privacy. This is one time when Congress is justified in taking a cautious approach. Any changes in privacy laws will require careful scrutiny to avoid needless erosion of Americans' civil liberties.

The 1994 Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act requires that companies provide the government the ability to intercept phone and broadband communications with proper cause. But as San Jose Mercury News reporter Troy Wolverton noted this week, increasingly, telephone calls and other communications are encrypted or made outside traditional phone networks using technologies such as Voice over Internet Protocol and peer-to-peer networking.

The Obama administration wants the same ability to tap into those conversations that it has with other forms of communication. It's a reasonable expectation. But technology creates challenges for lawmakers, who also must protect law-abiding users.

Telecom companies use encryption to keep hackers and others from invading users' privacy online, and it also helps assure the authenticity of the person sending the communication. Devising a way for the government to break into encrypted communication will be costly for the companies involved. It will also make online conversations more susceptible to hackers. Every software designer in Silicon Valley knows that if there's a way for someone to break into a system, they'll figure it out - it's only a matter of time.

Hackers aren't the only threat. Businesses need to know that their communications are not susceptible to being stolen by competing firms. International corporate espionage represents a major threat to the nation's economic future.

A delay in finding a solution may make the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attack. But that's a risk worth taking to preserve reasonable expectations of individual and business privacy.

The Obama administration should sit down with Internet communication companies and find the best way to balance these conflicting needs in current and future technology. In the meantime, everyone should bear in mind that wiretaps are not the only means to root out criminals or terrorism threats. Bugs, surveillance cameras and access to huge databases can put vast amounts of information at the government's disposal.

And it's not as if wiretaps are completely worthless. A government report issued in April reveals that the federal government had been granted more than 2,000 wiretaps in 2009, up more than 70 percent from a decade ago.

Federal law enforcement agencies should be encouraged to keep seeking legitimate ways to intercept communications from those who would do the nation harm. But they should not be permitted to trample over online use



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