There's a worrisome article in the Seattle Times about an investigative toolkit that Microsoft is making available to law enforcement agencies. It's got 150 tools, including data collection and password crackers, conveniently packaged in a USB thumb drive. Police no longer need to seize a computer to peek into its contents.Microsoft's super-duper snooper isn't just for American law enforcement -- it's worldwide. The article says that "More than 2,000 officers in 15 countries, including Poland, the Philippines, Germany, New Zealand, and the United States, are using the device, which Microsoft provides free." Good grief, this software already has a larger installed base than Windows Vista!
There are serious questions of civil liberties here. I'm not saying that Microsoft should refuse to cooperate with governments; after all, it often must cooperate when push comes to shove. Google, Yahoo, and MSN have all had to deal with China asking for information about forum postings, for example. That's an arm's-length relationship though, where they give just the minimum information needed to satisfy the government. I am concerned that this Microsoft toolkit is active collaboration.
Should a company become this chummy with potentially oppressive governments? Let's look at recent history inside the United States. When the U.S. government came to the three major phone companies and asked them to allow unrestricted NSA wiretapping without a court warrant, only one of them -- Qwest -- had the guts to say "we won't do it because it's illegal." As a result, the company says it was punished by being excluded from government contracts.
Then there's the question of whether the data found on a user's computer really incriminates them. Anyone who knows about botnets knows that a computer can be easily hijacked and be sending or receiving files that its user knows nothing about. The case of substitute teacher Julie Amero shows how someone's life can be destroyed by an assumption that everything on a computer is under the user's control.
Now some of you may be thinking, "What's the big deal here? Microsoft isn't even asking to be paid for giving law enforcement these tools or even for the training." (Also, insert obligatory reference to "catching child predators" here.) I say, let these governments hire people to do what they want. Microsoft, don't get tangled up with governments and law enforcement any more than you are absolutely required. It could come back to bite you -- and us.