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Science on Purpose: Catching cybercrime comes at the expense of privacy

How comfortable do you feel about giving out your personal information online? Have you given an internet company your mailing address? Phone number? Credit card information? How would you feel about letting them read your emails? This is exactly what the FBI has planned for your Gmail account and other email profiles as an effort to crack down on crime.

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By Ashley O’Neill (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: April 3, 2013

How comfortable do you feel about giving out your personal information online? Have you given an internet company your mailing address? Phone number? Credit card information?

How would you feel about letting them read your emails?

This is exactly what the FBI has planned for your Gmail account and other email profiles as an effort to crack down on crime.

Gmail is among the forms of internet-based communication the government wants to monitor to more effectively intercept crimes as they are being planned and committed.

This access to instantaneous data would help the FBI track and apprehend troublemakers before they engage in criminal action. It would be much quicker than the current method of waiting for service providers to hand over archived copies of emails, texts and instant messages (IMs), a process that usually has authorities waiting months or years.

Essentially, the FBI wants to wiretap our emails.

“[W]e are not focusing on access to stored data,” stated Valerie Caproni, former FBI General Counsel in an address to the House Judiciary Committee in 2011. “Rather, we are focusing on the interception of electronic communications and related data in real or near-real time.”

Andrew Weissmann stated the same opinion at a Washington talk, saying “the ability to intercept communications with a court order [is becoming] increasingly obsolete.”

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act allows network surveillance, but the law is outdated by almost 20 years – so it can’t be specifically applied to email, cloud-based servers or real-time communication like Skype, Facebook and other chat platforms.

Since information is readily available in many places online, there are all kinds of sneaky ways to “wiretap” information sent from user to user online, even without a court order. The reasoning is that once you post something online in your email or profile, be it your personal information, random chat or a deep dark secret, it becomes part of the public domain.

There is obviously a negative aspect to this issue – regular users consider a conversation between themselves and a buddy to be just a two-person chat, and the idea of someone monitoring that chat is directly in conflict with an idea of personal privacy.

However, there is an ugly truth about the virtual world. Someone else is usually listening, and they could be recording your conversation. You are constantly being monitored either by system administrators or an electronic server, so what’s so different about letting the government tap your conversations?

A positive aspect behind a third-party listening to our conversations is definitely the response time to criminal behaviour.

“Without the ability to collect these communications in real or near-real time,” Caproni stated, “investigators will remain several steps behind and left unable to act quickly to disrupt threats to public safety, or gather key evidence that will allow us to dismantle criminal networks.”

This includes anything from murder to verbal abuse to cyber bullying. Most of these crimes operate “beyond the reach of law enforcement’s investigative tools” according to the FBI’s 2011 request for better control. The way they see it, there is a whole network of drug cartels and human traffickers eluding the government’s grasp, and evidence of these felonies is protected under the same law protecting us from the investigators accessing our account logs.

The government would have to dedicate a huge investment into monitoring all the messages on the internet.  Think about all the Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, LinkedIn, MySpace and Skype instant messages, statuses, updates, posts and emails generated every second. Crime finds a way to operate. Even popular massive multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic are victims of illegal cyber activities. It would take a serious amount of computer power to record and search the millions of simultaneous conversations.

But don’t worry, the FBI is not ruffling through your personal stuff just yet – they still need a warrant to access any part of your email.

The effort to reduce crime online comes at the cost of our personal privacy. There is a battle between our notion of privacy and the FBI’s online security system; only time will tell which will be sacrificed in favour of the other.

The current Canadian government has said that it will not attempt to bring another internet wire-tapping bill into existence, after its internet surveillence bill C-30 was overturned earlier this year.

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