Goddamn it, Clinton, this time it's war.
A while back I ruffled through my stack of news clips and came up with five reasons we should fear for our personal privacy in the Age of Information (SW, 7/8). The good news is that there's some progress for consumer rights online. For instance, Intel is about to require all Web sites using the "Intel Inside" logo to post their privacy policies and to explain exactly what they do with the information they collect.
Business is slowly getting with the program, thanks to pressure from government. Problem is, who's going to pressure the government to do the right thing?
I'll give you a hint: It's not the executive branch. The Clinton administration, following up on every bad civil-rights impulse they're ever had (and that's a hell of a list), was revealed last week to have proposed new standards for computer surveillance that all but guarantee that the American right to privacy and due process will be hacked like John Bobbit's best friend.
Here's how the proposed Cyberspace Electronic Security Act works. Let's say you have a computer. And let's say something on your computer—an email account, your banking records, whatever—is password-protected. In fact, let's really make you an outlaw: Let's say you use encryption to protect your data. Under CESA, if you for some reason attract the attention of the government, investigators can get a warrant, enter your private property (that is, your computer), scoop up your passwords and encryption keys, and install software to override same. And they don't have to tell you they're doing it, either. The warrant is sealed; you'd only know something was wrong if you notice problems with your crypto or passwords—if then.
This is the same Clinton—exactly the same Clinton—that signed the Communications Decency Act into law back in 1996 and who thought "don't-ask-don't-tell" was a good idea. Our man in the White House (make that your man; I voted for Nader) fancies himself a latter-day JFK, but his real roots lie farther back: the Jazz Age of the Great Gatsby, where men successful beyond their talents made messes for other folks, for the less fabulous, to clean up. The Federal judiciary undid much of the damage done by the CDA, exactly as Clinton expected them to.
How can I say this plainly? WE HAVE ENOUGH LAWS TO FIX THIS ALREADY. Child pornography is illegal. Terrorism is illegal. Spanking the Net isn't going to make it suddenly Bad To Do These Things. Besides, we're smarter than that. Child pornography is a horrible evil—but in the same way that necrotizing fasciitis is a horrible way to die. It's grotesque, and in a better world it wouldn't exist, but the odds of it happening to you or yours are miniscule. CESA gives up your liberty to protect your security, only your security isn't really under attack. (From pornographers or terrorists, at least.)
It also assumes you're really stupid and afraid of the Big Bad Net. Let's put this in perspective. Far more Americans use phones than use the Net. Telephone surveillance is protected by mucho law. To tap a phone, federal investigators have to have eavesdropping approval from a judge. (Clinton's trying to eliminate those protections, too, by the way.) According to the Administrative Office of the US Courts, such approval was granted just 34 times last year. If the percentage of approval-worthy Net tap requests is proportionally smaller, that's a tiny amount of legit surveillance—and a big, nasty slab of law making it happen, law that establishes precedent no sane citizen wants on the books.
Covert ops have traditionally been the province of foreign intelligence—in other words, Americans traditionally have the right to know when the government has, ahem, taken an interest. The recent revelations about Echelon, the multinational surveillance ring, indicate that our "foreign intelligence" agents in the CIA have closer allegiance to other foreign intelligence operatives than to the American people. CESA is yet another stinking example of this administration's low level of commitment to domestic civil rights.
Clinton looked so damn good in 1992. After 12 years of Republicans—Republicans that essayed covert operations around the world, Republicans that acted as if civil rights were something to be sold to the highest bidder, Republicans that did everything possible to undercut the old hands-off concept of conservative government—who could have thought it could get any worse?