June 24, 2009

I know we'd all like to think there are ways to protect our privacy online, but there really aren't any - at least, any we have access to. And as long as Congress is too afraid of seeming "soft on terror," it's unlikely that legislation protecting our privacy will be passed. From Democracy Now!:

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Josh. Explain what they’re doing in Iran and then how the same technology is being used here.

JOSH SILVER: Well, yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Iranian government had secured this system from a German and Finnish company that will look through everything, both land line telephones, mobile telephones, email, websites, looking for keywords and actually monitoring the entire traffic going through one chokepoint in Iran. It’s been disputed by the European company, but the validity of the report seems solid.

What’s scary about this is that this technology that monitors everything that goes through the internet is something that works, it’s readily available, and there’s no legislation in the United States that prevents the US government from employing it. And that’s what’s really the cautionary tale here.

AMY GOODMAN: Your report is called “Deep Packet Inspection: The End of the Internet as We Know It.” Why does it threaten the internet, overall?

JOSH SILVER: Well, the problem is, is that, you know, if you look back to the 1930s, when telephone service became ubiquitous around the United States, lawmakers realized then that there was this new communications infrastructure and there needed to be consumer protections so that the government and others could not unlawfully or unethically monitor and listen in to the private conversations of American citizens. They established laws that prevented that from happening. In those laws, it made it so that the government requires a legitimate warrant, issued by a judge, that lets them do such monitoring.

Now we don’t have that. So what we have is this sort of free-for-all, where the policy that governs the internet has not caught up with the technology. So you have these incredible systems, built primarily by companies like Cisco out in California, that have the ability to do this. Now, we’re not saying that AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are like the Iranian government, but we do see a problem where even our own president, with his progressive internet policy agenda, last year flipped on this issue and actually supported a Bush administration law that granted immunity to the largest phone and cable companies for turning over citizens’ private records to the government, which was illegal at the time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your organization, a couple of years ago, raised questions about what Comcast was doing, in terms of this issue. Could you explain that?

JOSH SILVER: Sure. Last year, we filed a suit at the Federal Communications Commission and actually sanctioned Comcast Cable, for the first time any major carrier being punished for blocking so-called network neutrality. That is, they were discriminating against certain internet content over others. And the reason these issues are so important is that all communications—phone service, web service, radio—is all moving towards an online connection, all going through the internet. So this is really about the future of all communication in America.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how does packet inspection work?

JOSH SILVER: The way deep packet inspection works is that you have sophisticated equipment that literally watches the entire internet, and it watches for every piece of data, voice, video that goes through and pulls out key words, it pulls out key—both written and spoken, and looking for things like “rebel” or “grenade” or what have you. And then it will trigger that, and that will go to the NSA version, in this case, in the country of Iran.

But the potential of this technology to give government this sort of Big Brother monitoring ability, which goes way beyond any of the constitutional protections that are in our original Constitution, are really a cautionary tale and should have everyone in this country on notice. It is notable that there’s been very little follow-up coverage of this issue since yesterday’s Wall Street Journal piece.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s happening in China, Josh Silver?

JOSH SILVER: Well, China has very similar systems. What’s a little bit interesting about what happened yesterday is that Iran seems to be—and again, this has not been completely proven—but according to the Wall Street Journal, it appears that Iran is actually monitoring this web traffic in one single chokepoint on the web, whereas China does it in many different locations. That’s not a big difference, but everyone knows that the Chinese government is terrible on protecting the privacy of their citizens. But we do have a situation where this is starting to become ubiquitous in countries with bad human rights records, and it’s one that we have to get some legislation on, both internationally and in the US Congress, if we’re going to sort of stem this.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh, can you talk more about how this can be deployed here at home, how it’s done without our knowledge, and what you feel can be done about it?

JOSH SILVER: Well, it’s widely known that the major carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon, were being asked by the NSA, by the Bush administration, during the last seven, eight years, since 9/11 particularly, where they were asked to deploy sort of off-the-shelf technology made by some of these companies like Cisco that would do what I just described, that would listen to monitor content moving across the web and across the voice lines across this country. It was found that they did it, and a law was introduced in the Congress that would actually—would grant them immunity. It was written by telephone lobbyists. Again, Obama came out against that law and said we must punish these carriers for doing this, because it’s illegal, and then he flipped, under enormous pressure from the lobbies.

The technology is there. It’s going to get better. It’s very—relatively very easy for phone, cable companies, and thus the government, to monitor and listen and watch what we do every day on the web and on our phones. The only thing that’s going to protect us is hard, concrete laws passed by the US Congress that will make it illegal, and then effective watchdogging by the government to make sure that those laws are upheld. So, in order to do that, people need to pay attention. People need to talk to their members of Congress about it. They have to go to our website, freepress.net, and get involved and make sure that these basic protections are upheld.

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