For too long, it seemed as though the federal government was eroding Internet privacy at an alarming rate, always in the name of “safety”. Now someone is finally fighting back — surprisingly, it’s President Obama.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has been seeking to expand its role in protecting private-sector computers from cyber crimes. Last year, legislation was drafted that would have required companies in charge of providing critical services to allow their Internet traffic to be continuously scanned by computer threat data provided by NSA. If any of these companies found evidence of potential cyber attacks, they would be required to turn over the evidence to the federal government. NSA officials thought that a little more intrusion was a reasonable price to pay for preventing terrorist attacks. The companies would have likely disagreed.
So did President Obama. Both Obama and the Justice Department argued that if enacted, NSA would have unprecedented access to civilians’ Internet usage. While NSA claims that the process would have been automated — with no human involvement until an actual threat was detected — the Obama administration argued that the Internet providers charged with the scanning would have become vulnerable to cyber threats themselves. This would open them up to needing to be scanned for threats, which would put the entire Internet under government cyber monitoring. A dystopian novel could not have predicted it so well.
The legislation permitting more cyber surveillance has been pulled, for now. However, a revised version is expected to be part of the cyber legislation making its way through Congress. Given the deserved criticism of the last Internet bill, there is little reason to be optimistic. Right now there are two competing bills in Congress — a Democratic one and a Republican one. The Democratic bill requires infrastructure to meet minimum standards for guarding against a cyber attack, while the Republican bill permits businesses to share information about cyber attacks — shields them from liability for any actions taken to protect their computer network. Why let the government invade your privacy when your boss can do it so much better?
Cyber space is still an unknown in many respects, with new rules constantly being written to define its borders. On the one hand, the government and businesses have a right to be concerned about certain emerging threats. Russia and China have become more aggressive about launching cyber attacks on other countries, while groups like Anonymous threaten a mass-scale attack on our government’s computer network. Then there are the common, everyday white collar crimes committed by hackers and fraudulent dealers. Serious crime that hurts innocent people needs to be stopped. However, as always, the problem is finding the right balance between security and privacy. Constant surveillance for every little threat just opens up the potential for abuse. Relatively innocent behavior suddenly comes under the microscope, and innocent people are accused of things that they never did and never intended to do. You should not need to hire a federal criminal defense attorney after surfing the Internet. Let’s hope that NSA’s plan for surveillance gets massively scaled down, or dumped altogether.