Stroke of Genius


The Philadelphia trial of an alleged Mafia boss shows that when it comes to threats to privacy, the government will always have an ace in the hole. Or a sniffer on the keyboard.

Sometime during court-approved break-ins in May or June, the FBI planted a keystroke-logging tap in Nicodemo S. Scarfo Jr.'s computer. Scarfo had thwarted other court-approved methods of surveillance because he used the popular encryption program Pretty Good Privacy. That was too powerful for the FBI to crack, so the agency instead used a keystroke tap, which recorded Scarfo's passwords to his data. Just weeks after the tap was in place, Scarfo was arrested and charged with masterminding an illegal betting and loan-sharking operation.

The FBI has yet to reveal whether the tap was software or hardware. A hardware tap would mean the FBI has to get permission from a judge for the kind of black-bag op used on Scarfo's computer. In theory, a software bug has the same restrictions. But it would certainly be easier to abuse and install remotely without judicial oversight.

It could even be hijacked by bad guys outside the bureau and put to who knows what ends.

In any case, the mere existence of government keyboard taps illustrates that direct marketers—even the most vile spammer—are amateur-hour violators of privacy. The pros carry a badge.