Entries Tagged "courts"

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T-Mobile Hack

For at least seven months last year, a hacker had access to T-Mobile’s customer network. He’s known to have accessed information belonging to 400 customers — names, Social Security numbers, voicemail messages, SMS messages, photos — and probably had the ability to access data belonging to any of T-Mobile’s 16.3 million U.S. customers. But in its fervor to report on the security of cell phones, and T-Mobile in particular, the media missed the most important point of the story: The security of much of our data is not under our control.

This is new. A dozen years ago, if someone wanted to look through your mail, they would have to break into your house. Now they can just break into your ISP. Ten years ago, your voicemail was on an answering machine in your house; now it’s on a computer owned by a telephone company. Your financial data is on Websites protected only by passwords. The list of books you browse, and the books you buy, is stored in the computers of some online bookseller. Your affinity card allows your supermarket to know what food you like. Data that used to be under your direct control is now controlled by others.

We have no choice but to trust these companies with our privacy, even though the companies have little incentive to protect that privacy. T-Mobile suffered some bad press for its lousy security, nothing more. It’ll spend some money improving its security, but it’ll be security designed to protect its reputation from bad PR, not security designed to protect the privacy of its customers.

This loss of control over our data has other effects, too. Our protections against police abuse have been severely watered down. The courts have ruled that the police can search your data without a warrant, as long as that data is held by others. The police need a warrant to read the e-mail on your computer; but they don’t need one to read it off the backup tapes at your ISP. According to the Supreme Court, that’s not a search as defined by the 4th Amendment.

This isn’t a technology problem, it’s a legal problem. The courts need to recognize that in the information age, virtual privacy and physical privacy don’t have the same boundaries. We should be able to control our own data, regardless of where it is stored. We should be able to make decisions about the security and privacy of that data, and have legal recourse should companies fail to honor those decisions. And just as the Supreme Court eventually ruled that tapping a telephone was a Fourth Amendment search, requiring a warrant — even though it occurred at the phone company switching office — the Supreme Court must recognize that reading e-mail at an ISP is no different.

This essay appeared in eWeek.

Posted on February 14, 2005 at 4:26 PMView Comments

The Security of Checks and Balances

Much of the political rhetoric surrounding the US presidential election centers around the relative security posturings of President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, with each side loudly proclaiming that his opponent will do irrevocable harm to national security.

Terrorism is a serious issue facing our nation in the early 21st century, and the contrasting views of these candidates is important. But this debate obscures another security risk, one much more central to the US: the increasing centralisation of American political power in the hands of the executive branch of the government.

Over 200 years ago, the framers of the US Constitution established an ingenious security device against tyrannical government: they divided government power among three different bodies. A carefully thought-out system of checks and balances in the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch, ensured that no single branch became too powerful. After watching tyrannies rise and fall throughout Europe, this seemed like a prudent way to form a government.

Since 9/11, the United States has seen an enormous power grab by the executive branch. From denying suspects the right to a trial — and sometimes to an attorney — to the law-free zone established at Guantanamo, from deciding which ratified treaties to ignore to flouting laws designed to foster open government, the Bush administration has consistently moved to increase its power at the expense of the rest of the government. The so-called “Torture Memos,” prepared at the request of the president, assert that the president can claim unlimited power as long as it is somehow connected with counterterrorism.

Presidential power as a security issue will not play a role in the upcoming US election. Bush has shown through his actions during his first term that he favours increasing the powers of the executive branch over the legislative and the judicial branches. Kerry’s words show that he is in agreement with the president on this issue. And largely, the legislative and judicial branches are allowing themselves to be trampled over.

In times of crisis, the natural human reaction is to look for safety in a single strong leader. This is why Bush’s rhetoric of strength has been so well-received by the American people, and why Kerry is also campaigning on a platform of strength. Unfortunately, consolidating power in one person is dangerous. History shows again and again that power is a corrupting influence, and that more power is more corrupting. The loss of the American system of checks and balances is more of a security danger than any terrorist risk.

The ancient Roman Senate had a similar way of dealing with major crises. When there was a serious military threat against the safety and security of the Republic, the long debates and compromise legislation that accompanied the democratic process seemed a needless luxury. The Senate would appoint a single person, called a “dictator” (Latin for “one who orders”) to have absolute power over Rome in order to more efficiently deal with the crisis. He was appointed for a period of six months or for the duration of the emergency, whichever period was shorter. Sometimes the process worked, but often the injustices that resulted from having a dictator were worse than the original crisis.

Today, the principles of democracy enshrined in the US constitution are more important than ever. In order to prevail over global terrorism while preserving the values that have made America great, the constitutional system of checks and balances is critical.

This is not a partisan issue; I don’t believe that John Kerry, if elected, would willingly lessen his own power any more than second-term President Bush would. What the US needs is a strong Congress and a strong court system to balance the presidency, not weak ones ceding ever more power to the presidency.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Posted on October 29, 2004 at 10:21 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.