News Analysis: The FBI and other federal security agencies already can read your e-mail and listen to phone calls. Now they want to read your Internet text messages.
The Obama administration is preparing legislation that
would require messaging providers to make wiretap capabilities available to
federal agencies with court orders, according to a story in the New York Times
The Times report says that the proposed legislation would
require companies such as BlackBerry maker Research In Motion to make it
technically possible to respond to a court-ordered wiretap for messaging and
e-mail systems. Wiretapping of voice communications is already legal, although
a debate continues as to whether a court can issue a wiretap that covers all
calls made by a specific person, or only calls on a specific phone.
A similar debate raised its head several years ago when
the federal government proposed legislation that would require digital phone
carriers and Internet service providers to provide such a wiretap capability.
They eventually got the ability to tap these services. The debate this time is
similar but for one aspect, and that is the existing practice of encrypting
data to provide users with an expectation of privacy.
It's no secret that transmitting text messages in the
clear means that it's possible, if unlikely, that they'll be intercepted. This
is why companies such as RIM provide tight encryption-they want their business
customers to be able to keep their information private. In RIM's case, it's a
competitive advantage especially in some industries such as banking and health care,
where privacy rules are important.
The government is asking for legislation that would
require that all companies providing a communications service to make it
possible for investigators armed with a court order to be able to tap into
these communications. Currently, they can get the court order, but some
companies including RIM can't comply because they can't break their own
encryption. This is the issue that caused a standoff in India,
Saudi Arabia and Dubai, and likely will continue to cause
The legislation, which probably won't see the light of
day until next year, faces a number of hurdles. There are the obvious privacy
concerns, of course, and privacy advocates are sure to raise a ruckus about any
such proposal. But there are other hurdles as well, not the least of which is
that some of the companies involved, including RIM, aren't in the United
States. Currently, the proposal is said to
include a requirement that businesses located outside the United
States be required to establish U.S.
operations that would be able to provide a base for such wiretaps.
It's hard to see exactly how such legislation, even if it's
enacted, would do this. Giving U.S.
law enforcement agencies some sort of power over foreign companies would seem
to require the negotiation of new treaties, at least.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.