Making Things Harder on the Heroes

by on July 10, 2008 · 8 comments

I’m not sure what to say about yesterday’s FISA vote that I haven’t said a dozen times before. I’m disappointed, obviously, but I can’t say I was surprised. I was probably more surprised that the White House didn’t get its way in February than that it did get its way in July. The powers that Congress granted yesterday will almost certainly be abused in the coming years, but we probably won’t find out about them until long after it’s too late to do anything about them.

But Aaron Massey makes an excellent point that’s worth quoting:

Although there are many aspects of this bill that disappoint me, I would like to take a moment to talk about the one closest to my research: legal compliance in technology systems. This bill sets an incredibly bad precedent for anyone advocating legal compliance. Essentially, what the telecommunications companies did was blatantly against the law. However, this bill retroactively provides them immunity for their actions. When the consequences for violating the law are removed retroactively, companies have an incentive to violate the law in the future.

The ethics in situations like this are already difficult for engineers to recognize. For a technologist like Mark Klein, setting up a room with a whole bunch of cables going into it is a normal daily aspect of their job. Most will not see the ethical implications. Most engineers at that level are not aware of the bigger picture. They may not be able to say for sure whether their action is a violation of the law. To speak out about such a thing already takes great personal courage.

The last thing engineers need to see is a case like this. They will recognize that even if they do risk their job to speak out about a possible legal problem, and even if that possible problem is recognized as such, it is now, with the passage of this bill, clearly possible that Congress will bend over backwards to let their employer off the hook.

To understand how difficult it was before this amendment was passed for someone like Mark Klein to do what he did, I urge you to read the introduction Cindy Cohn gave him at the EFF Pioneer Awards. Congress has just made it harder on the heroes. This is a disappointing day.

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