Saturday, July 28, 2007

Osama really loves emoticons

As people try to piece together the extent of the domestic surveillance that the US government has been up to in the last few years, there's been a sudden burst of relevant government leaks to various newspapers. This Wall Street Journal editorial hints at one aspect of what George Bush's spooks have been up to: looking for ways to snoop on Internet traffic without a warrant.

The Journal claims that if an Internet telephone call (or, presumably, an IM conversation) was between two foreign-based suspects but routed through US servers, it becomes a domestic conversation for the purpose of US law and so a warrant would be required to intercept it. Here's the (presumably) hypothetical example the WSJ gives

If an al Qaeda operative in Quetta calls a fellow jihadi in Peshawar, that call may well travel through a U.S. network.

Indeed it could -- if the terrorists use Skype. But are we really expected to believe that the evildoer in Quetta would go the trouble of finding a broadband connection to Skype with his fellow evildoer in Peshawar -- when he could just pick up the phone and dial him direct, on plain old Pakistani phonelines that don't come anywhere near the US? And anyway, aren't these evildoers always supposed to be "on the run" in caves somewhere, where Skype access is not an issue?

2 more things to note. First, the Bush surveillance is likely just massive data mining of all Internet activity, without any attempt to sort out who is where at each end of the transaction. Second, it might be time to take another look at those French concerns that Blackberry could be part of the problem.

UPDATE: David Rivkin and Lee Casey, again on the apparently well-briefed Wall Street Journal editorial page, go with the same claim that overseas calls might pass through US-based servers and so George W. Bush would need to be able to listen in without a warrant. Apart from anything else, these people don't seem to realize that the long-term consequence of allowing George W. Bush access to US-based Internet servers is that other countries will develop their own infrastructure to sidetrack the US. A big source of comparative advantage would be gone.

FINAL UPDATE 3 AUGUST: It seems that the briefing to newspapers were part of a shadow debate going on about revision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, with this claim about electronic conversations between foreign parties cross US soil being a key part of the White House argument.

VERY FINAL UPDATE: While it's typical of Republican buffoonery that Congressman John Boehner apparently discussed classified information (see also here) in explaining why a new law was needed, note that it's clear from our WSJ links above that the same information -- the alleged need for a warrant to intercept communications overseas using US wires -- was being leaked to favoured news outlets before Boehner blabbed.

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