Via reader CharlesWT comes word of a bill that would prevent the government from mandating easy access to user data on a variety of computer- and Internet-related technologies:
Tech firms have been ramping up encryption and other privacy protections, meanwhile, in a rebuke to the government surveillance efforts revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
"The NSA has and will continue to violate the constitutional protections guaranteed to every American unless Congress intervenes," said Rep. [Ted] Poe, the measure's lead sponsor, in a statement.
"Until we fix this and make the law clear, citizens can never be sure that their private conversations are safe from the eyes of the government."
The legislation would also require the government to obtain a court order before searching for information about Americans in databases collected under foreign surveillance authorities.
Poe, a Texas Republican, is joined by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) in pushing the legislation.
One of the architects of the Internet, Vint Cerf (now with Google), has also spoken out against "back doors."
"If you have a back door, somebody will find it, and that somebody may be a bad guy or bad guys, and they will intentionally abuse their access," Vint Cerf, one of the co-founders of the Internet, said during remarks on Monday at the National Press Club.
"Creating this kind of technology is super-, super-risky," he added. "I don't think that that's the right answer."
Law enforcement and the intelligence community takes a dimmer view, naturally. Last fall, FBI Director James Comey argued that not forcing tech companies to make it easier and easier for the government to get whatever they wanted whenever they needed it would bring about everything just short of a plague of burning frogs: "If this becomes the norm, I suggest to you that homicide cases could be stalled, suspects walked free, child exploitation not discovered and prosecuted," he said.
The bill pushed by Poe, Massie, and Lofgren comes after the House Judiciary Committee voted down a popular amendment to the USA Freedom Act that would have done the same thing. That amendment would have blocked the NSA from using Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act to collect data without a warrant. It also would have ended backdoor mandates. While an overwhelming majority of both parties supported such measures, they didn't go forward from the committee level because the Senate Republicans had vowed to renew the Patriot Act without changes. That would have been the default decision if the Freedom Act failed to win a vote. Strangely, there's no question it would have even with Poe's amendment.
Confused? Disappointed? Join the club. And if you're getting a sense of deja vu, that's because the government has been pushing backdoors for as along as there's been new-fangled telecommunications. For an essential primer on that, read Declan McCullagh's great piece in Reason's Don't Tread on My Internet! issue. A snippet:
One fine day in 1991, an ambitious senator named Joe Biden introduced legislation declaring that telecommunications companies "shall ensure" that their hardware includes backdoors for government eavesdropping. Biden's proposal was followed by the introduction of the Clipper Chip by the National Security Agency (NSA) and a remarkable bill, approved by a House of Representatives committee in 1997, that would have outlawed encryption without back doors for the feds.
The NSA's encryption device was instantly criticized by civil libertarians, of course, but met its doom when cryptographers discovered that the Clipper Chip's built-in backdoors for government surveillance could be easily sealed off. That 1997 legislation also died, but only after Silicon Valley firms scrambled to inform politicians that encryption was now embedded in web browsers, and criminalizing it would likely not boost U.S. firms' international competitiveness. By the end of the decade, Team Crypto seemed to have won: Government officials were no longer calling for a ban, and the White House even backed away from export restrictions.
So did the FBI, the NSA, and the other extrusions of the homeland-surveillance complex recognize their '90s errors and change course? Not exactly. Today demands for mandatory back doors and weakened encryption are nearly as loud as they were a quarter-century ago. The feds' disregard for citizens' privacy has been undimmed by the passage of time.