by Robert Carl Cohen

Should we allow US Law enforcement broader eavesdropping ability?

The reaction to the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 have focused attention on the obvious contradictions between the rights of both individuals and businesses to conduct private communications and the desire of government agencies to monitor the communications of those who may threaten national security.

Leaving aside the obvious civil rights aspect, let's examine the question from a strictly pragmatic point of view: In the name of protecting us from criminals do we want anyone, including local or federal Agencies, or any other entity, to be able to eavesdrop on private business matters?

Those who respond in the affirmative should consider the possibility of the information thus acquired being sold to their competitors or otherwise abused. But we have to trust our Government, don't we?  Is the usual response.

Frankly, this writer finds it very difficult to rely on the assurances of the FBI, CIA, NSF, NRO, IRS or any other such body. Why not?

Compromising incidents  such as the betrayal of their responsibility by CIA Deputy Director Aldrich Ames and FBI Counter-Intelligence Chief Hansen, show that, where there's money involved, trusting government officials is a very insecure bet.  If Ames and Hansen were able to sell our nation's defense secrets for years without being apprehended, why should we assume that other public servants wouldn't do the same when they come across confidential business information?

It doesn't take much imagination to speculate that there's a lot of money to be made from industrial espionage; which is why a growing number of businesses are retaining on-line security experts. But what about those who use the Internet for such things as making narcotics deals or exchanging kiddy porn? There's no denying that such things go on, but the price paid for permitting the authorities indiscriminate access to all communications is so high that it brings into question the overall effect on society.

The US Post Office has had to face this dilemma for many years, as drug dealers and other law breakers were using "snail mail" long before the Internet was invented. The issue was decided by the federal law which requires a court order before the cops can open any first class mail with the judge issuing said order having first been presented with some acceptable form of evidence indicating probable cause.

It is the position of this writer that the same standard should apply to interception of electronic communication as well. Otherwise we will be permitting the establishment of a paradigm which has the potential of being used, even by those who, like Ames and Hansen, are at the pinnacles of our national security structure, to injure the very citizenry which it's proponents claim to want to protect.

Insofar as inhibiting law enforcement agencies from protecting us is concerned, only those criminals lacking sophistication can be spotted by snooper programs such as the highly publicized "Carnivore" et al, since all that they can do is red flag the use of phrases containing key words such as bomb, TNT, coke, snort, lolitas, grass, pussy, etc.; whereas the sophisticated perpetrator can easily develop disguised terminology.   Incidently, your having read this editorial, which contains those words, has probably gotten you automatically listed as a potential "terrorist suspect."

Wholesale spying won't stop terrorists, but it is certainly intimidating to everyone else. Stalin's USSR and Hitler's Germany were able to spy on their populations without limitation, but still weren't able to detect communications between those who clandestinely opposed them, only to silence all forms of public criticism.

Since we live in a nation which is supposed to be governed by consent, perhaps there should be an "Open To Law Enforcement" box accompanying all e-mail which can be checked in the affirmative by those assenting to such surveillance? This could lead, of course, to everyone who fails to check it being automatically placed on a list of potential criminals - almost as incriminating as not displaying a large flag on your home, car and business.

In short, do you trust government officials to be aware of your private communications, encrypted or not? I don't.

(c) 2010  Robert Carl Cohen