On Monday, Oct. 2, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton will order Mozilla to hand over to the FBI a public register of people using its widely popular Firefox browser. The following day, the agency will be granted access to the same kind of database used to target millions of people with terrorism-related ads.
That data was used to target people seeking to get into an Islamic State recruitment training camp, the National Security Agency said last month. It’s a similar case, with many similarities, to the revelation earlier this summer of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance of millions of Verizon customers. In May, the companies sued the government, which wants their records. Google responded earlier this year with an unusual regulatory maneuver that will keep the search giant from collecting on phone calls and Wi-Fi data.
Here are some questions and answers on a topic where activists, government officials and prominent journalists have been vocal opponents.Does any of this make you a robot?
Not exactly. No, people do robots. Researchers no longer need to know if their machines resemble a human in their appearance. Robots already exist in part by necessity: They’re bound by rigid, programming-based components that are difficult to change.Why isn’t the NSA collecting on everyone using Firefox?
Several privacy organizations have argued that requiring Mozilla’s software to collect all of this private data would stifle the open-source Mozilla project and compel Mozilla to collect all people’s activity on the same basis. The company’s best argument is that Mozilla is meant to allow free speech, and open-source software does not allow the NSA to think it is collecting on every person using the software. It would be better to risk the Privacy Act rather than be found guilty of violating it.Is the malware in Firefox engineering or otherwise – and what are other kinds of malware that could enable online intrusions?
This isn’t a technical question, since researchers can identify and trace the code on a computer running Firefox. But the issue is deeply political. Although Mozilla chose to decline to disclose the public logs about all the people using its software, the company nonetheless acknowledges that it is providing information about a portion of all the people who use its software and publishes that information. The larger issue here, if you like, is whether the FBI should be able to obtain a public list of these people, without giving a reasonable expectation of privacy, over the objection of the people using their software.Are there other kinds of spying that are legal? The question is less relevant than the issue of where it is illegal. There are no circumstances in which government agencies and those they investigate are prohibited from spying on individuals or sharing their information with others. It’s up to Congress and the courts to decide what constitutes a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Has the government done anything improper?
Yes, though not as egregious as the NSA’s tapping. That intrusion involved wire taps – meaning secret surveillance of phone and email accounts, but without a warrant. That was illegal. But the U.S. also now is one of several countries where wiretapping technology is available to protect and train spies. The NSA’s disclosure that its huge SpyNet collection site included tools to listen to and read messages within those systems was one of the more consequential disclosures by the government – though not in the way the NSA described it.What does Mozilla have to say? In July, Mozilla announced plans to create a Firefox Foundation committed to “transparency” and “distrustworthiness.” Mozilla said it will help declassify sensitive information from the NSA program, including a list of groups that receive funding from the agency. Mozilla also is supporting “a coalition that will counter certain types of disinformation campaigns in the U.S.” What happens now?
Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker said she hopes the government doesn’t seek to stop the rollout of Firefox 18, the next version of the software for PCs and phones that comes out next week. Microsoft, for one, is unhappy with Mozilla’s move, so Baker says Firefox will be free to start on Oct. 2. (See the Mozilla position page below.) When that happens, the browser will start as a private beta at betawire.com, but also be open for public testing. Since the FBI’s request came out, we at Kotaku have a written response to Mozilla, and here it is.