Wired News @ ISS World Conference

Crashing the Wiretapper’s Ball

The popular law enforcement myth is that crooks are getting ever more sophisticated in their use of modern technology, so the police have got to acquire more “sophisticated” point-and-drool equipment to catch them. We find versions of this incantation in virtually every Justice Department press release or speech related to CALEA. But these tools — especially in the IP realm — are not so much sophisticated as complicated and very expensive. They’re a bad alternative to old-fashioned detective work involving the wearing down of shoes and dull stakeout sessions in uncomfortable quarters such as automobiles. The chief impulse behind this law enforcement gizmo fetish is laziness, and it’s a bad trend: The more policemen we have fiddling with computer equipment, the fewer we have doing proper legwork.

The windup is that garden-variety crooks will remain those most susceptible to remote, electronic surveillance, while sophisticated, tech-savvy bad guys will continue operating below the radar. CALEA and its most potent technological offspring are inadequate to catch the people who most need catching. The project of “lawful interception” is huge, grotesquely expensive, controversial, infused with unnecessary secrecy and often useless against the most important suspects it purports to target.

It poses a tremendous threat to human rights and dignity in countries without adequate legal safeguards, and still invites occasional abuses in countries with them. Its costs are paid by citizens who are deliberately kept in the dark about how much they’re paying for it, how effective it is in fighting crime and how susceptible it is to abuse. And that’s the way the entire cast of characters involved wants to keep it.

Which, of course, is exactly why the public needs to know much more about it, even if it requires rude tactics like crashing the spooks’ soirée.