The Obama administration is drafting legislation to expand wiretap authority to intercept all Facebook, BlackBerry and Skype communications.
The Obama administration is working on a proposal that would make it easier
for law enforcement and security officials to eavesdrop on online chatter,
including e-mail, instant messaging and social networks, reported The New York Times
on Sept. 27.
The proposed legislation will likely come before Congress next year.
The White House-sponsored bill would require all Internet-based communication
services to be technically capable of complying with a federal wiretap order.
This includes being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages, said
It will give the government the ability to listen in on literally every communication
anyone makes online.
While the officials working on the proposal do not yet agree on how to
define what constitutes a communications service provider, encrypted e-mail
transmitters like the BlackBerry, social networking sites like Facebook and
peer-to-peer messaging software like Skype will likely be included. The Obama
administration prefers the broadest definition, which would include companies
whose servers are operated outside of the United
States, such as Canadian-based Research In
Motion, maker of BlackBerry smartphones.
"We're not talking expanding authority," Federal Bureau of
Investigation General Counsel Valerie Caproni told the Times. "We're
talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order
to protect the public safety and national security."
Federal law enforcement and national security officials have been demanding
more control over Internet wiretapping, arguing that extremists and criminals
are more likely to chat online than using telephones.
The proposal raises serious privacy concerns about users on the Internet,
reminiscent of the uproar that followed Bush administration's expansion of the government's
wiretapping authority. It could also set an example for other companies to
follow, the Times said.
"They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services
function the way that the telephone system used to function," Vice President
of the Center for Democracy and Technology James X Dempsey told the Times.
RIM has been dealing with this issue over the past few months. Several
countries, including India
Arabia, threatened to ban BlackBerry services, claiming the device's e-mail
encryption posed a national security risk. RIM agreed to give security
officials "lawful access" to data; United
States officials would like similar access
under the proposed law.
Internet and phone networks are already required to have eavesdropping
abilities thanks to a 1994 law called the Communications
Assistance to Law Enforcement Act. While extending the wiretap authority to
include digital networks and cell phones, and not just copper-wire phone
systems, the law does not apply to communications service providers.
Under the current rules, investigators can intercept messages at the network
company's switch. If the user is using a service that encrypts the messages
between the computer and the servers, investigators have to go to the
communications service provider to view the unscrambled content. While some
service providers have the capability to intercept these messages, most do not.
According to the Times report, many providers wait until they are served with
wiretap orders before developing intercept capabilities.
However, some services, like peer-to-peer instant messaging software,
encrypt messages between users, so even the provider cannot unscramble them.
The proposed legislation will require these programs to be redesigned so that
they can be unscrambled.
"They can promise strong encryption. They just need to figure out how
they can provide us plain text," said Caproni.
According to the report, officials from the White House, Justice Department,
National Security Agency, FBI and other agencies have been working on the
proposals, but important elements still have to be worked out.