First Click: Don't tell the NSA but the legal computer wiretap turns 20 today

October 23rd, 2015

20 years ago today a federal judge in the US authorized the first legal computer wiretap. Prior to October 23rd, 1995, wiretap authorizations had been used primarily as a means to monitor telephone conversations of organized crime and drug suspects. The wiretap on Harvard computers during the last two months of 1995 ultimately led to the arrest of 21-year-old Julio Cesar Ardita of Buenos Aires who later pled guilty to illegal wiretapping and computer crime felonies.

A March 1996 press release announcing an arrest warrant for Ardita noted how careful investigators were to protect the privacy of the innocent. "Court authorization was deemed necessary in this case because the Harvard computer system does not post a banner informing users who log onto the system that their communications might be monitored." How quaint.

The government also touted its ability to preserve the confidentiality of legitimate transmissions even while on the lookout for baddies. "We intercepted only those communications which fit the pattern," said US Attorney Donald K. Stern. "Even when communications contained the identifying pattern of the intruder, we limited our initial examination to 80 characters around the tell-tale sign to further protect the privacy of innocent communications." Attorney General Janet Reno added, "This case demonstrates that the real threat to computer privacy comes from unscrupulous intruders, not government investigators." Times sure have changed.

20 years later, thanks to Edward Snowden, we know just how unscrupulous and overzealous government investigators can be. Covert and public programs designed to thwart terrorism have swept impossibly vast quantities of personal data into NSA databases. Data collected in bulk that can then be mined after entering a broad justification into a simple on-screen form — no court authorization required. As Snowden told Glenn Greenwald in 2013, "I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email."

Today's a reminder, perhaps, that we can’t be both free, and free from risk. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Happy anniversary?

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