Illegal wiretapping is a dangerous wedge

The NSA asks for a little. When they get it they ask for a little more

The phrase "the thin end of the wedge" is a good description for those things that, if allowed or tolerated, enable other things that are bigger or worse to happen.

My recent Backspin column, 'Wiretapping, whistleblowing and IT ethics' about the illegal Internet wiretapping AT&T has been allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to do, concerned just such an issue. I wrote: "Why does this matter? [Because] they are collecting data on everyone and, once they have the data, who is to say what future purposes might crop up to justify putting it to use? That is one slippery slope my friend."

I'm changing my metaphor here because it also now strikes me that this issue represents a very dangerous wedge. The NSA asks for a little. When they get it they ask for a little more. In the end what they've got is orders of magnitude greater than what they first asked for, but now a precedent has been set. This ensures that it is next to impossible to unwind the problem. In this case the log of privacy has been split by the wedge of politics.

Reader Collingwood Harris commented: "I have pondered the issue for a long, long time, and I for one see absolutely nothing illegal, immoral or unethical in the federal government's wiretapping program. Indeed, I see it as an example of concerned government at its dutiful, citizenry-serving best. Particularly in light of the militant Islamic threat. I don't see how anyone can come to any other conclusion."

Collingwood believes that the government is here to help, which is in theory true. The problem is in practice the people who are the government are driven by politics, and while their surveillance effort may be ostensibly reasonable in and of itself, what they've willfully done is to ignore the law in the process.

The problem is that for law enforcement agencies to wiretap at all they need to be granted a warrant by a judge, and that's what the NSA hasn't bothered with. If we let it off the hook, what will it want next? What's the old phrase? Ah yes: Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile.

But it isn't just the government that wants to do things that, from a cooler perspective, can be seen as incrementally damaging to privacy and its legal protections. Just consider what our old friends, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), would like to see happen.

At a recent conference the MPAA CEO and Chairman Dan Glickman pushed, again, the idea that ISPs should filter traffic looking for infringement of MPAA members' content. With what can only be described ad a startling deviousness, Glickman said, "The ISP community is going to be at the forefront of this ... because they have everything to lose and nothing to gain by not seeing that the content is being properly protected."

The problem here is that there are ISPs who would welcome such interference because it will extend their control, allowing them to be the enablers, for a hefty price, of an artificial quality of service that is definitely not going to be in our collective interest. In other words, it plays into their desire to circumvent network neutrality!

Make no mistake, whether it is the government or powerful trade groups, we ignore their thin wedges at our peril because once the wedge is driven home, the log will be split.

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