Instapundit links to an article by Melanie Scarborough that purports to show that either a telecom engineer or the Bush administration is lying about the domestic “wiretapping” with the clear implication that Bush is the liar.
Unfortunately, her premise is based on a complete misunderstanding of how modern telecommunication works. Both parties are telling the truth.
The problem is that most people don’t understand that there are no longer any wires to tap. Regardless of how information originates — voice, texting, web pages, etc. — modern packet-switched networks carry them all in the same form down the same physical infrastructure. Each individual communication gets broken up into individual packets and tossed out onto the net to make its way independently to its destination. In order to monitor any single communication, one must capture the entire packet stream and then pick out the individual packets of interest.
Worse, in order for the agency to determine if it has the legal authority to read a communication, it must first assemble and read the communication to determine exactly where it originated, who sent it to whom and whether it concerns matters of national security. In other words, to know if they can legally read the communication, they must first read the communication.
Most of the wiretapping hysteria results from people conceiving of communications technology as it existed 40 years ago, when the basics of wiretapping law were laid down. They still imagine that each communication travels down its own dedicated wire and that to monitor a communication one must merely physically monitor that one wire. From this ignorant supposition, capturing every packet in the stream in order to search for the legally accessible ones looks like mass-monitoring. Its not.
Modern technology leaves us with the choice of examining every communication flowing through the network or examining none. It’s just that simple.
Journalists, activists and lawyers really need to catch up with the times.