Moral Outrage
Whew! God help us!

How the US government secretly reads your email

Somewhere, a US government official is reading through a list of those who sent or received an email from Jacob Appelbaum, a 28-year-old computer science researcher at the University of Washington who volunteered for WikiLeaks.

Appelbaum is a spokesman for Tor, a free internet anonymising software that helps people defend themselves against internet surveillance. He’s spent five years teaching activists around the world how to install and use the service to avoid being monitored by repressive governments.

It’s exactly the sort of technology Secretary of State Hilary Clinton praised in her famous “Internet Freedom” speech in January 2010, when she promised US government support for the designers of technology that circumvented blocks or firewalls.

Now, Appelbaum finds himself a target of his own government as a result of his friendship with Julian Assange and the fact WikiLeaks used the Tor software. Appelbaum has not been charged with any wrongdoing; nor has the government shown probable cause that he is guilty of any criminal offense.

That matters not a jot, because, as the law stands, government officials don’t need a search warrant to access our digital data. Searching someone’s home requires a warrant that can only be obtained by proving probable cause, but digital searches require no such burden of proof.

Most people are not aware of the ease with which governments—free, open and so-called democratic—can access and peruse our private communications. Privacy researcher Chris Soghoian estimates there are likely tens of thousands of these orders made annually by the federal government under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. These allow officials to intercept telephone and internet meta-data in real time.

The fourth amendment of the US Constitution should protect against unwarranted search and seizure. Its inclusion in the Bill of Rights was a result of colonialists’ anger at abuse suffered at the hands of British officials using writs of assistance. Writs were general warrants issued by the British Parliament to allow customs officials to search for smuggled goods, but in the American colonies, they were used by agents of the British state to interrogate people and raid their homes on the pretext of searching and seizing any “prohibited and uncustomed goods”, which often meant “seditious” publications that criticized government policies or the King.

It’s ironic to see how, under the guise of “patriotism”, these court orders have stripped away fourth amendment protections and granted to US officials the same unlimited powers of search and seizure that so aggravated the American revolutionaries.

[Excerpt of Guardian article by Heather Brooke]

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