Byte Me

November 17, 2005

Try to remember what you were like when you were 11 years old. Trapped between the sandbox of childhood and the sheer horror of adolescence; irresponsible but optimistic. Knowing enough not to run with scissors, yet not to be trusted with matches.

Our federal government has dug up the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994, an 11-year-old law that they’re using to require universities to overhaul their campus networks to make it easier to for the government to monitor e-mail and online communication.

The Justice Department says that it’s to help law enforcement “accomplish its mission in the face of rapidly advancing technology.” Voice Over IP systems like those of Skype or GoogleTalk, where phone calls are conducted over the Internet rather than through switchboards, really do subvert conventional wiretaps. And not being able to find out what you’re up to, College Student, makes them nervous.

A few basics for you. Information is transmitted over the Internet in “packets.” Picture building a house made of Lego blocks, and that you want to build the same house for your friend across the room. You can’t pick the house up as a unit, but you can take it apart, move the blocks to the other side of the room and re-build it there. Each block is like a packet – a chunk of information taken from Point A to Point B.

Now imagine there are 50 people on your side of the room and 50 people on your friend’s side. You’re all playing with Legos, and want to give your friends what you made. Which makes more sense, each walking across the room to give their blocks directly to their partner? Or making everyone walk halfway across the room with a pile of Legos in their hands, assemble the house, show it to a third party, dissemble it and then take the pieces over to their partner?

It’s inefficient. Instead of sending packets from network users directly over the Internet, the Act mandates that they all stop in an easily-monitored “network operations center” before continuing to their destination.

Also caught up in the requirements of the new law are communications companies and city-run operations that provide Internet access – libraries, for example. But seriously. College networks?

And you can guess the main reason given for resurrecting this act: terrorism. Or rather, as the Justice Department said in their order for the overhaul last year, “criminals, terrorists and spies.”

Raise your hand if you saw that one coming.

Spies. On college campuses. On college networks! And dumb enough to contact Super Secret Spy Headquarters using Instant Messenger on a library computer? Please. That’s so … Alias.

Predictably, colleges are livid. They’re of the opinion that system modifications would do little to actually catch terrorists, and it could cost them as much as $7 billion to overhaul their network hardware – and on their dime, too. That estimate doesn’t include how much it would cost to hire new people to install and administrate the new systems.

Eleven years ago we weren’t deficit-spending like we are now. Politics aside, USA Today estimates that we spend as much as $177 million per day in Iraq. You do the math.

The thing is, there are already means of monitoring online traffic. The agency in question would have to get a court order for a specific person and for a specific purpose and then work with the campus to monitor the individual. This circumvents that process.

This is an expensive attempt to remove an institution’s right to argue on the behalf of the privacy of their patrons. And not only that, but it removes nearly all personal privacy online at any monitored location. Does the government really need to know the weird things my friends and I discuss via e-mail or AIM? Like how last week I used my backpack as a pillow for a nap, and woke up with $.45 of change stuck to my face?

That is not something I’d like as part of my permanent record.

Yes, 11 years on the Internet is a long time. It’s the difference in time between the first benign non-blinky banner ads and the poke-you-in-the-eye pop-ups and seizure-inducing ads we have now. Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, helping co-eds and cyber-criminals alike.

It’s one thing for institutions to work with the government. It’s another for a court to compel an institution to work with the government. It is something else entirely to bypass the institution, bypass the court, and mine information with the flip of a switch and without permission.

Is it easier to ask for forgiveness than permission? Isn’t that something an 11-year-old would do?

Byte Me was published on November 17, 2005 in Arts & Entertainment

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