Saturday, February 16, 2008

I Wish I Could Say I'm Surprised

The New York Times just published this story about electronic surveillance: "F.B.I. Received Unauthorized E-Mail Access." These stories have become so commonplace that I generally don't mention them here. I only bother to mention it, because it reminds readers of an important feature of national security policy that is often overlooked, which the reporter compares to "law enforcement officials getting a subpoena to search a single apartment, but instead having the landlord give them the keys to every apartment in the building."

The episode is an unusual example of what has become a regular if little-noticed occurrence, as American officials have expanded their technological tools: government officials, or the private companies they rely on for surveillance operations, sometimes foul up their instructions about what they can and cannot collect.

The problem has received no discussion as part of the fierce debate in Congress about whether to expand the government’s wiretapping authorities and give legal immunity to private telecommunications companies that have helped in those operations.

On the technical side of things encryption experts are apparently working on creating keys that limit what could be accessed, but that might just mean that all of us have a blank warrant filled out on us that is only waiting for the right electronic signature.

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