Cybersecurity and Civil Liberties Concerns

The DC  Examiner is half right in an editorial on civil liberties concerns:

Civilian libertarians were apoplectic over former President George W. Bush’s “warrantless wiretap” program, which sought to monitor communications from terrorist networks overseas. So why are they not screaming bloody murder now that President Barack Obama appears slated to receive unprecedented power to monitor all Internet traffic without a warrant and to even shut the system down completely on the pretext of national security? The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 – introduced by Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, and cosponsor Olympia Snowe, R-ME – bypasses all existing privacy laws and allows White House political operatives to tap into any online communication without a warrant, including banking, medical, and business records and personal e-mail conversations. This amounts to warrantless wiretaps on steroids, directed at U.S. citizens instead of foreign terrorists.

The bill gives the Secretary of Commerce and a new national cybersecurity czar power to shut down all Internet transmissions in the event of a yet-to-be defined “cyber emergency.” This is a dangerous power, even for a president who in a 2008 campaign appearance at Dartmouth College harshly criticized Bush for anti-terrorist “wiretaps without warrants,” and promised that if elected he would leave such policies behind.
They go on to give further arguments about the act. They are correct in their concerns about the act. Like conservative bloggers (such as here) who have jumped aboard this attack, they are wrong about the views of civil libertarians.  Civil libertarians on the left have shown concern about this. For example see this item at Mother Jones from last week. While the act is of concern for its violations of civil liberties, this is now an act under consideration in Congress. The goal now is to  eliminate portions of the bill which infringe upon civil liberties while it is still in Congress. Note that this was offered with cosponsorship by a Democrat and a Republican. Obama has not signed the act.
To either claim that civil libertarians are not concerned, or to pin this on Obama at this time, are simple acts of political opportunism by the right. If they really cared about civil liberties more of them might have been speaking out during the Bush years. While liberals are acting as watch dogs on the Obama administration, far too many conservatives spent eight years apologizing for George Bush.


  1. 1
    Eclectic Radical says:

    It can argued (whether the argument is correct or not is a matter of opinion, I honestly cannot make up my mind) that everything on the internet (except that content that is properly encrypted and secured and kept private/proprietary) is public and there is no civil liberties infringement in monitoring activity in a public sphere. By this argument there is no privacy on the internet, except that privacy that is established by the providers of content themselves to protect their content, so there cannot be any violation of the right to privacy except in private/proprietary sites. It can even be argued that internet activity is a deliberate choice to participate in a public sphere and to submit one’s self to whatever scrutiny occurs as a result.

    I am not sure I completely accept that argument, but there are perfectly rational points therein.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Much of what is on the internet is rather public but there is also a lot of private information which is sent over the internet but is not intended for public display. This includes personal communications, financial information, and increasingly medical information.

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Unless the law specifically allows the government to tap medical and financial information, which are already confidential by law and would require a waiver, those wouldn’t fall under the purvue of this act. If they are specifically waived, then I’m against the act.

    To the best of my knowledge, the main desire is to be able to safely shut the internet down in a case of an engineered computer virus attack, to protect government computers.

    I agree entirely that anything that does violate privacy or civil liberties should be eliminated, I simply felt the need to voice the argument that would be made against privacy on the internet. I recognize its points without being entirely sure I accept it all.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    A provision includes:

    The Secretary of Commerce shall have access to all relevant data concerning such networks without regard to any provision of law, regulation, rule, or policy restricting such access.

    This seems pretty broad. On the other hand there is this provision which does call for civil liberties protections:

    …the President, or the President’s designee, shall review, and report to Congress, on the feasibility of an identity  management and authentication program, with the appropriate civil liberties and privacy protections, for government and critical infrastructure information systems and networks.

    I think there is cause for concern with this act and civil liberties advocates need to continue to try to influence the final act. It is premature to either panic or for the right to attack Obama based on something such as this which is still in Congress. The comments from right wing bloggers who are trying to use this bill as some sort of proof that liberals aren’t concerned about civil liberties violations committed by Obama are absurd. Obama has not committed any civil liberties violations under this act or expressed any plans to, and civil liberties advocates on the left have already been expressing concerns about the dangers here.

  5. 5
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Not to mention that civil liberties advocates on the left have been hitting President Obama on the DOJ, on the perceived lack of investigation in Bush-era human rights abuses, etc. I certainly don’t disagree with you there. And I certainly agree the people on the right are talking about both sides of their mouths.

    The first quoted clause does raise some cause for concern, and the second clause is… thought provoking. It sets up a perfect situation by which, once the law passed, any infractions of civil liberties under it would be safely the blame of the president and not Congress because the bill passes the buck.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    I have mixed feelings about that second clause I quoted. As you said, it does pass the buck. On the other hand I wonder if it could be a good thing if Obama uses this to place strict restrictions to preserve civil liberties. Of course I would prefer that Congress not pass a bill which is dependent upon later action by the president to protect civil liberties.

  7. 7
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Well that’s the problem. Even if President Obama did just that, a future president could as easily NOT institute strict controls. Which is essentially ceding to the president the whole issue of what is or isn’t legitimate. The purpose of congressional oversight is to make sure the president and his agencies follow the law, not to let the president and his agencies define the law to the lawmakers.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    I should have included the line before that section. “Within 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act…”  The purpose sounds like a one time review by the president, but still once this is in effect there is no way to say how future presidents will implement it. We will have to see how the final bill shapes up.

  9. 9
    Eclectic Radical says:

    If it is a one time review then I have a reasonable (if not necessarily excessive, one must be careful about putting too much trust in anyone who must grapple with the temptations of power) degree of trust in President Obama’s ability to provide a reasonable review to protect civil rights and privacy. I am a bit bothered, still, by the congressional punt on the civil rights concerns. The president’s legislative role is supposed to be limited to advise and consent, and I find myself as leery of a law allowing the chief executive to control civil rights policy as I was of a law allowing the chief executive to unilaterally go to war.

  10. 10
    bruno says:

    In regards to privacy on the internet.  If all the Obama Administration does splanting a little cookie on my computer to check what I’m doing; I’ll gladly agree to that, if the promise is that all those malware, spyware, phishing schemes, annoying advertising cookies, marketing ploys, and other fraudulent activities will be a thing of the past.

    Now that would be utopia, with a mild civil liberties infringement.

  11. 11
    Ron Chusid says:


    There is no promise in return that all the malware, spyware, etc will be a thing of the past. Rather than allowing the government to plant a cookie on everyone’s computer, a preferable way to handle that problem is to frequently scan one’s own computer with programs such as Malwarebyte’s Anti-Malware and LavaSoft’s Ad-Aware.

  12. 12
    bruno says:

    Ron… I realize that.  I was using some sarcasm, with the knowledge that my scenario wouldn’t even have a chance, even if congress passed.

    I do use several spydoctor, Ad-aware, and Norton utilities, … they sure seem to be some vicious hackers out there that don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

    In my opinion, if the government uses spiders to find unsavory individuals who obviously have murderous intentions, then I have no problem with that.

    The problem I do have with it is that it’s just an excuse to look for other things as well.  If people want to discuss their love of guns, they should be able to do so without government eaves dropping.  The same goes for people who enjoy porn online, they should’nt have to worry about Uncle Sam being a voyeur to their actions.  There’s also no reason for the government to know what I buy on e-bay, Amazon, and a variety of other websites; regardless of what their excuse if for needing to ‘mine that data’.

    So…. it is a dilemma….  I’m sure they can come up with a ‘reasonable’ way to track the ‘evil-doers’ without infringing on ordinary citizens’ privacy.   I don’t have a solution for that, as I”m not ‘that’ computer literate.

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