Monday, May 08, 2006

Felten on Wiretapping

Ed Felten is starting a series of short articles on his blog about 21st century wiretapping.

"The first thing to realize is that this is not your parents’ wiretap debate. Though the use (and sometimes misuse) of wiretapping has long been a contentious issue, the terms of the debate have changed. I’m not referring here to the claim that 9/11 changed everything. What I mean is that wiretapping technology has changed in ways that ought to reframe the debate.

Two technology changes are important. The first is the dramatic drop in the cost of storage, making it economical to record vast amounts of communications traffic. The second technology change is the use of computer algorithms to analyze intercepted communications. Traditionally, a wiretap would be heard (or read) immediately by a person, or recorded for later listening by a person. Today computer algorithms can sift through intercepted communications, looking for sophisticated patterns, and can select certain items to be recorded or heard by a person...

So government will have greater eavesdropping capabilities and, more interestingly, it will have different capabilities. How should we respond? Surely it is not right simply to let government do whatever it wants — this has never been our policy. Nor can it be right to let government do no wiretapping at all — this has not been our policy either. What we need to understand is where to draw the line, and what kind of oversight and safeguards we need to keep our government near the line we have drawn."

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