What's different here is that the Obama administration is pushing this -- despite campaign promises to enhance and expand our digital privacy. Back then, Obama made a few vows:
Strengthen privacy protections for the digital age and ...harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy....[and support] updating surveillance laws and ensuring that law enforcement investigations and intelligence-gathering relating to U.S. citizens are done only under the rule of law.
The argument for expanded wiretapping is simple: If you and I can Skype each other in private, so can the terrorists and the mob. And, of course, government authorities would only tap into communications with proper court authorization and would only target potential terrorist/criminals.
We saw how well that worked with the last administration and those warantless wiretaps. (Later, when it turns out that the courts didn't authorize the taps and the targets aren't always terror-iminals, Congress will somehow find a way to retroactively legalize it, regardless of who's in power.)
Theoretically, at least, it seems perfectly reasonable to allow law enforcement authorities the same access to Net communications that they've had for plain-old-telephone service since J. Edgar Hoover was still wearing pleated skirts and knee socks.
In practical terms, though, this could turn out to be a nightmare from which we never awake because, unlike with the closed phone system, we're talking about the open Internet. Though the phone system could be hacked in its day (that is, after all, where hacking originated), it's a whole 'nother animal than the InterWebs. Sure, there was some freelance wiretapping going on, but not at the level you'd see today -- whether we're talking organized criminals in Eastern Europe, South American scam artists, or Chinese cyber spies.
If the feds can sneak in through the backdoor via these types of communications, so can the bad guys. In fact, the bad guys will probably get there first and have enough time to tidy up the place and bake cookies.
Making our VoIP calls and encrypted communications less secure for the bad guys makes it less secure for the rest of us, too. Is the risk worth it? That's what you, me, and our elected officials need to figure out.
I think, though, that discussing what "digital privacy" truly means is a good thing. It's a conversation that's long overdue -- and the more geeks we get involved in this discussion, the better it will be. The question is whether we can talk about it free from the partisan rancor that's poisoned public debate for the last decade.
Should the feds be free to tap the Net? Post your thoughts below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article, "Government wiretapping: Coming soon to a computer near you?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.