Monday, July 29, 2013

The Federal Government wants your passwords

Allegedly the U.S. Government is obtaining or trying to obtain your various internet passwords.
I can't say that I am surprised by this allegation. The horrible thing about the post 9-11 world to which Americans have eagerly submitted is that it gave permission to the most power-hungry authoritarian impulses on the both the left and the right to run amok. We have ceded so many rights and privileges of citizenship in order to be safe that I do not doubt that a future Administration will wish to put video cameras and screens in each American's home just to keep an eye on what everyone is doing. If we have to submit to a virtual strip search in order to fly, are subject to random stop-and-frisk walking the streets, have the Post Office scanning every piece of mail that has been sent and sharing that with intelligence or law enforcement agencies without a judge's approval, and have the NSA monitoring phone records and likely phone conversations and real time web conversations, why wouldn't the government just want to make things easy for itself by just getting user passwords? No muss no fuss. They can just sign on as you and read through your email or blog posts or facebook messages without any issues. What's the big deal right? If you have nothing to hide why wouldn't you want the government to have your passwords? What are you? An Al-Qaeda supporter? A fascist? A socialist? A Green Party voter?
The U.S. government has demanded that major Internet companies divulge users' stored passwords, according to two industry sources familiar with these orders, which represent an escalation in surveillance techniques that has not previously been disclosed.If the government is able to determine a person's password, which is typically stored in encrypted form, the credential could be used to log in to an account to peruse confidential correspondence or even impersonate the user. Obtaining it also would aid in deciphering encrypted devices in situations where passwords are reused."I've certainly seen them ask for passwords," said one Internet industry source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We push back."
A second person who has worked at a large Silicon Valley company confirmed that it received legal requests from the federal government for stored passwords. Companies "really heavily scrutinize" these requests, the person said. "There's a lot of 'over my dead body.'"The Justice Department has argued in court proceedings before that it has broad legal authority to obtain passwords. In 2011, for instance, federal prosecutors sent a grand jury subpoena demanding the password that would unlock files encrypted with the TrueCrypt utility.
The Florida man who received the subpoena claimed the Fifth Amendment, which protects his right to avoid self-incrimination, allowed him to refuse the prosecutors' demand. In February 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed, saying that because prosecutors could bring a criminal prosecution against him based on the contents of the decrypted files, the man "could not be compelled to decrypt the drives."In January 2012, a federal district judge in Colorado reached the opposite conclusion, ruling that a criminal defendant could be compelled under the All Writs Act to type in the password that would unlock a Toshiba Satellite laptop.
Both of those cases, however, deal with criminal proceedings when the password holder is the target of an investigation -- and don't address when a hashed password is stored on the servers of a company that's an innocent third party.
In a display of breathtaking spinelessness the House of Representatives recently refused to pass the Amash Libert-e Act. This bill would have stopped the NSA activities concerning phone records and made it EXPLICITLY clear that what the NSA has been doing is not legal. It's important to notice that most Democrats voted for this bill, while most Republicans were opposed. While it's certain that some of those Democratic aye votes were only allowed by House Minority Leader Pelosi because she knew she already had the votes to defeat it, the fact remains that on this issue at least the Democratic and Republican Leadership as well as the White House were all united in defending the right of the NSA to gather any records on anyone at anytime. Such bipartisanship. It sort of gives the lie to the idea that the House Republicans won't unite with the President on anything. Without Republican assistance this bill would have passed the House. The President and the House Republicans are both in agreement that you don't have any rights the NSA needs to be concerned with. It's also important to point out that the Michigan Republican who introduced this measure, Justin Amash, is a libertarian. I have my issues with libertarians but when it comes to civil liberties at least, many libertarians and liberals are reading from the same choir book. And their interpretation of constitutional scripture doesn't change depending on who's sitting in the pulpit.

It ought to go without saying but I'll say it anyway. Yes it is a dangerous world out there and people in the various law enforcement and intelligence agencies must make decisions I wouldn't want to make. They know things I'll never know. And I want everyone to be and stay safe. Yadda, yadda, yadda. But I still say that unless you have a reason specific to me there is no reason for a government agency to have my password. And thanks to that little thing called the Fifth Amendment I think if you ask me for my password I'm going to tell you to commit an anatomically impossible act.

I think the time has come for us to have a constitutional convention. I'm no attorney and certainly no conservative but it looks to me as if the practices of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are stretching the limits of what our laws were meant to prevent. The new allegations of password requests are just the latest evidence of the old truism that if you give people an inch they'll take a mile. Or put another way,

"Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations"-James Madison
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