Broad-based U.S. push to tighten Internet monitoring

A new initiative aims to better coordinate investigation of cyberattacks on government systems. Efforts to intensify monitoring of the Internet and to broaden wiretapping powers are heating up the privacy debate.

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The White House has moved this month to beef up its capacity to tap phones and police the Internet. But those expanded powers are heating up a long-running debate on security versus privacy.

The Washington Post reported on Saturday:

"President Bush signed a directive this month that expands the intelligence community's role in monitoring Internet traffic to protect against a rising number of attacks on federal agencies' computer systems.
The directive, whose content is classified, authorizes the intelligence agencies, in particular the National Security Agency, to monitor the computer networks of all federal agencies -- including ones they have not previously monitored.
Until now, the government's efforts to protect itself from cyber-attacks -- which run the gamut from hackers to organized crime to foreign governments trying to steal sensitive data -- have been piecemeal. Under the new initiative, a task force headed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) will coordinate efforts to identify the source of cyber-attacks against government computer systems."

The new directive is part of a wider push by the US intelligence community to monitor the Internet, says Wired Magazine's blog "Threat Level," which follows security and privacy issues.

Recommended: FISA 101: 10 key dates in the evolution of NSA surveillance
"The nation's top spy, Michael McConnell, thinks the threat of cyberarmageddon ... is so great that the U.S. government should have unfettered and warrantless access to U.S. citizens' Google search histories, private e-mails and file transfers, in order to spot the cyberterrorists in our midst.
…[I]n May 2007 McConnell convinced President Bush that a massive cyber-attack on a [single] U.S. bank would be worse for the economy than the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, [a Jan. 21 article in The New Yorker] reports."

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the administration has advanced its efforts to boost its wiretapping abilities.

"[The] White House plan to broaden the National Security Agency's wiretapping powers won a key procedural victory in the Senate on Thursday, as backers defeated a more restrictive plan by Senate Democrats that would have imposed more court oversight on government spying.
The vote moves the Bush administration a step closer toward the twin goals it has pursued for months: strengthening the N.S.A.'s ability to eavesdrop without court approval, while securing legal immunity for the phone companies that have helped the agency in its wiretapping operations."

Those efforts may violate, however, an earlier law governing wiretapping, The Washington Post reports.

"At the heart of the controversy is whether the government's wireless surveillance program violated provisions of the original FISA [Foreign Intelligence Security Act] law that requires warrants for wiretaps whenever one of the parties involved in the communication resides in the United States....
The original FISA law requires the government to get permission from a special court to listen in on the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States. Changes in communications technology mean many purely foreign to foreign communications now pass through the United States and therefore require the government to get court orders to intercept them."

Both the wiretapping and Internet proposals have met stiff public resistance from privacy advocates and Democratic senators, and the debate is likely to balloon, reports The Wall Street Journal's "Washington Wire" blog.

"Congressional aides tell The Journal that they, too, are also anticipating a fight over civil liberties that will rival the battles over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."

Bruce Schneier writes in Wired Magazine's "Security Matters" blog.

"Security and privacy are not opposite ends of a seesaw; you don't have to accept less of one to get more of the other. Think of a door lock, a burglar alarm and a tall fence. Think of guns, anti-counterfeiting measures on currency and that dumb liquid ban at airports. Security affects privacy only when it's based on identity, and there are limitations to that sort of approach."

Mr. Schneier's blog links to a recent poll by Rasmussen Reports, an electronic publishing firm specializing in the collection, publication, and distribution of public opinion polling information, indicating that Americans think security is more important than privacy.

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