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Surveillance State Repeal Act Gaining Support
by Glen Emerson Morris
Copyright © 1994 - 2011 by Glen Emerson Morris
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Technically speaking, an e-commerce system can only be as secure as the encryption system it is based on. The recent revelation that backdoors have been built in to most of encryption systems used in America at the NSA's request is very troubling for the future of e-commerce in America. While most of the objections to the Patriot Act and current NSA policy are based on their impact on civil liberties of the individual, an even stronger case can be made regarding the effect on SMBs and ecommerce.
Given that a backdoor to an encryption system is the equivalent of a skeleton key for a lock, for practical purposes, the American government is asking us to live in a world where we can't lock the doors to our businesses, or our file cabinets, or our cash registers, or even our safes. It doesn't take a business degree to realize that our national security policy has become a threat to the very foundations of the economy it's supposed to be protecting and on many fronts.
Theft - backdoors make it easier for thieves to steal a company's information, like customer credit card numbers.
Foreign intelligence - the Chinese security agency has a massive program in place to steal intellectual property from the West. Backdoors will only make the job easier. Instead of having to break into many systems, they only have to break into one, the US government's. Once they have the key to the backdoor, every computer system in America is open to them.
Foreign attacks - backdoors could be used to gain access to and damage critical systems in our infrastructure, and that's not just theory. A few years ago the Iranian plant for processing uranium with centrifuges was hacked and the speed of the centrifuges adjusted to burn out the motors prematurely. The same thing could be done to us.
Competition - SMBs competing or even just negotiating with major corporations could find themselves at a severe disadvantage. A few years ago it was discovered that Air France was recording the conversations of foreign travelers in business class for the French intelligence agency, which in turn gave the info to French corporations. Big corporations with lucrative government contracts won't hesitate to use all the resources available to them.
The Government - in the past, the American government has used wiretap information to blackmail people for political objectives. And it assuredly will in the future. (In 1964 the FBI blackmailed Martin Luther King in an attempt to force him to commit suicide.)
Any one these areas is a significant problem. Collectively they add up to a very insecure world for e-commerce. Fortunately, something is being done about it.
On July 24, 2013 US Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) introduced a bill to repeal the Patriot Act and the 2008 NISA amendments. Unlike most bills in Congress the Surveillance State Repeal Act, HR 2818, is short and written in plain, unambiguous language. Here's an overview of the bills most important content.
Sections 2 and 3 Repeal of the Patriot Act and the NISA 2008 Amendments
This section repeals both acts and restores American law to the way things were before the bills were passed.
Section 5 Warrant Requirements
Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, no information relating to a United States person may be acquired pursuant to this Act without a valid warrant based on probable cause. By definition this section applies to SMBs as well.
Section 7 Encryption and Privacy Technology of Electronic Devices and Software.
Perhaps HR 2818's most important feature is that it stops the creation of backdoors.
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Federal Government shall not mandate that the manufacturer of an electronic device or software for an electronic device build into such device or software a mechanism that allows the Federal Government to bypass the encryption or privacy technology of such device or software.
Section 8 GAO Compliance Evaluations.
This section requires the Comptroller General of the United States to annually evaluate compliance by the Federal Government with the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.) and annually submit to Congress a report containing the results of that evaluation.
Section 9. Whistleblower Complaints.
This section allows FISA employees and contractors to submit complaints to several designated individuals and agencies in the House and Senate.
Section 10. Prohibition on Interference with Reporting of Waste, Fraud, Abuse or Criminal behavior.
This section makes it possible to fire government employees for preventing or punishing employees or contractors who report waste, fraud, and abuse or criminal behavior. Currently, they're usually rewarded for this behavior.
Just a few months ago the chances of a bill like this being introduced at all were simply nil. These days, the bill actually has a chance. So far, HR 2818 has been endorsed by The New York Times and the ACLU, and an online poll at VoxPop registered 98% support. Let's hope it's as popular in Congress.
HR 2818 has been sent to committee, and it will take some time before we know what its real chances are. Let's hope it's successful. There's only a thin line between a surveillance state and totalitarian police state, and we're very close to crossing that line, perhaps irrevocably. We should consider our future carefully because democracy is impossible in a surveillance state, but it goes further than that. While democracy is something we need, a viable economy is something we have to have to survive.
Glen Emerson Morris was a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law.
He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.
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