Tap, tap, tap. I'm sorry, could you please speak up? The federal employees playing monkey in the middle on our Skype call couldn't quite make out what you were saying.
In case you missed the headlines in the New York Times this morning, or all the me-too stories in the blogosphere cranked to varying degrees of hysteria, Uncle Sam is angling to wiretap the Internet -- or, at least, expand its ability to get at things like VoIP calls and encrypted emails. Per the Times report:
Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.
[ Also on InfoWorld: Don't look now, but the government can already wiretap your BlackBerry. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]
I'll pause now while you work up a frothy head of righteous indignation. Ready? Alrighty then.
This is nothing new, by the way. The feds have been trying to find a way to snoop on Internet communications since the Clinton administration. In fact, this story has revived the mid-'90s debate over the proposed Clipper chip, a backdoor that would be built into communication devices allowing the FBI and any other spooks with a legal excuse to tap into encrypted conversations. That idea eventually got shot down, as the feds found other ways to eavedrop on the bad guys.
Cnet's Declan McCullagh reminds us of some of the feds' sneakier work-arounds in days gone by:
Police can obtain a special warrant allowing them to sneak into someone's house or office, install keystroke-logging software, and record passphrases. The Drug Enforcement Agency adopted this technique in a case where suspects used PGP and the encrypted Web e-mail service Hushmail.com. And the FBI did the same thing in an investigation of an alleged PGP-using mobster named Nicodemo Scarfo.
Another option is to send the suspect spyware, which documents obtained by CNET through the Freedom of Information Act last year showed the FBI has done in cases involving extortionists, database-deleting hackers, child molesters, and hitmen. The FBI's spyware is called CIPAV, for Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier.