by Patrick Martin
28 September 2010
Obama White House
is backing new regulations that would compel popular Internet messaging
Skype and Blackberry to open up their systems to FBI
surveillance, the New York Times reported Monday, citing federal law
enforcement and national security officials.
The threat to democratic rights goes far beyond anything envisioned by the
Bush administration. The goal is
to make all forms of electronic communication that use the Internet subject
to wiretapping and interception by federal police agencies.
In the past few years there has been a large-scale shift from conventional
telephone communication to Internet-based messaging, which is both cheaper
and more secure.
“Investigators have been concerned for years
that changing communications technology could damage their ability to
the Times reported.
“In recent months, officials from the FBI,
the Justice Department, the National Security Agency, the White House
and other agencies have been meeting to develop a proposed solution.”
This would include drafting new statutory
language to bring providers like
Research in Motion, the Canadian-based
company that makes Blackberry devices, under legal controls similar to those
established by the 1994 Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act.
That legislation required telecommunications companies to make their
call-processing systems accessible to federal government spying, whether the
calls pass through conventional phone lines or cell phone relay towers.
One of the biggest issues will be a government demand that communications
service providers change the structure of their hardware and software,
providing a “back door” for the use of intelligence agencies and ensuring
that government agents can break any encryption applied to messages either
by the service provider or the customer.
The Times article did not raise any alarm over the prospect of government
snooping on the private communications of hundreds of millions of people,
whether in the United States or in other countries.
Nor did it quote any objection to the proposal
from civil liberties groups, although the American Civil Liberties Union
quickly issued a statement calling the plan,
“a huge privacy invasion” that was “one more
step toward conducting easy dragnet collection of Americans’ most
The only downside suggested by the Times account
was the existence of technical problems that might prove expensive and
cumbersome for the corporations that would have to comply with the new
rules, and that the new security procedures might create new opportunities
FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni, who discussed the issue with the
newspaper, said that there was a consensus among police and intelligence
agencies that companies which provide encrypted communications would have to
retain the key to any encryption, rather than allowing their customers to
devise and hold their own.
“No one should be promising their customers
that they will thumb their nose at a US court order,” she told the
Times. “They can promise strong encryption. They just need to figure out
how they can provide us plain text.”
In other words, encryption would protect the
privacy of communications, except when the government says otherwise.
This is the same stance taken by dictatorial governments from China to the
Middle East. The governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates
only last month threatened to bar Blackberry services in their countries
because Research in Motion refused to allow the local intelligence services
to monitor and intercept messaging.
The Times article gave two examples of government efforts to intercept
encrypted or peer-to-peer communications that ran into technical obstacles,
one involving a drug cartel, the other related to the failed Times Square
bombing earlier this year. These examples were chosen to support the claim
by the Obama administration that the buildup of surveillance is part of a
struggle against crime and “terrorism.”
Obama administration has defined
“terrorism” so widely that the term now covers a vast array of
constitutionally protected forms of political opposition to the policies of
the US government, including speaking, writing, political demonstrations,
even the filing of legal briefs.
The Times report comes only three days after FBI raids on antiwar political
activists in Minneapolis and Chicago, who could face charges of providing
“material support” for terrorist organizations because they have spoken and
written in opposition to US foreign policy in the Middle East and in
According to an attorney for one of those targeted, the dragnet was so
all-encompassing that FBI agents seized,
“any documents containing the word
By the same logic, any data packet passing
through the Internet with the word “Palestine” could be subject to
interception, decryption, and storage in a federal database where both the
person sending the message and the person receiving it would be permanently
recorded as under suspicion of links to terrorism.
Other words suggest themselves as likely
The US national security apparatus seeks the power not only to spy on the
Internet, but to seize or shut it down entirely when that might seem
Former CIA director Michael Hayden,
interviewed by Reuters at a cyber-security conference in San Antonio, Texas
on Sunday, called for giving President Obama, or any president, the power to
shut down the Internet.
“It is probably wise to legislate some
authority to the president to take emergency measures for limited
periods of time, with clear reporting to Congress, when he feels as if
he has to,” he said.
Hayden was echoing a view that is increasingly
widespread in official Washington.
In June, a Senate subcommittee approved a bill,
introduced by Joseph Lieberman, the right-wing Democrat from Connecticut,
declaring the entire World Wide Web a “national asset” of the United States
and giving the president the power to seize control of the Internet or order
its complete shutdown “for national security reasons.”
The 197-page bill is entitled “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset
Act,” or PCNAA. It has the backing of another top Senate Democrat, Jay
Rockefeller of West Virginia. Big software companies and Internet Service
Providers (ISPs) are supporting the bill because it grants them immunity
against civil lawsuits for any damage caused by a shutdown or government
Also on Monday, the US Treasury Department issued proposed new regulations
that would require American banks to report all electronic money transfers
into and out of the United States, regardless of the amount. Up to now,
transfers of $10,000 or more had to be reported.
The new regulations were issued under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism
Prevention Act, passed in 2004, which gave the treasury secretary authority
to require such reports to “combat terrorist financing.”
The new rules would require banks to pump
information on 750 million transfers a year into a huge new database that
could be mined by police, intelligence and regulatory agencies.
The information accompanying a wire transfer usually includes the name,
address and account number of sender and recipient, as well as
identification such as a driver’s license or passport number if required by
the money service. Banks would have to provide Social Security numbers for
senders and recipients on an annual basis.
These actions demonstrate that a turning point has been reached in the
erosion of democratic rights in the United States.
A full decade ago, at the time of the stolen
presidential election of 2000 and the Supreme Court’s anti-democratic
decision in Bush v. Gore, the Socialist Equality Party and the World
Socialist Web Site warned that there was no longer any constituency for the
defense of democratic rights within the American ruling class.
For a decade since
the 9/11 terrorist attacks, first under
Bush, now under
Obama, the American
ruling class has erected the framework for a police
state. At no stage in this process has there been any significant opposition
from any section of the political establishment.
Now the United States stands on the brink of major social struggles, with
tens of millions of working people seeking the means to fight to defend
jobs, living standards and public services.
The American ruling class has long understood
that the real threat to its vast wealth and privilege comes not from foreign
“terrorists,” but from below, from the working people who constitute the
vast majority of the population.
Working people must be equally clear-eyed:
millions will now come into
conflict with the vast military/intelligence apparatus of the federal
What is posed now is a turn to political
struggle, to the independent political mobilization of the working class
against the two official parties of big business, the Democrats and
Republicans, and against the capitalist state itself.