U.S. Aims to Force Web Services to Compromise Message Encryption

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-05-05 Print this article Print

The stick that would compel them is a series of increasing fines that theoretically (if you do the math) keep doubling until it reaches an infinitely large amount of money. It's maybe even enough money to make Google pay attention, although it’s not clear that’s even possible.

In one sense this is understandable. The federal government does have a requirement to catch criminals and prevent terrorists from carrying out attacks like the 9/11 attacks in New York or the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15.

It also has the right to get a court-approved warrant to obtain access to the private communications of suspected criminals. But to fine a company into oblivion for something that they can’t do or because they need time to develop the technical ability to comply with the government’s demands seems insane. Sure, it will get their attention, but if the government drives the communication service out of business, law-enforcement officials won’t get the information they want.

Worse, threatening such a punitive response to a technically difficult problem only means that the federal government is either going to make locating a business in the U.S. unprofitable, result in wretchedly poor service or both.

Faced with such a punitive fine as the feds are contemplating, why would a company willingly place itself in harm’s way? After all, the Internet is everywhere. All that the FBI may accomplish is that these companies place themselves beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement by, say, moving to Canada or Mexico.

Or, if the company is already in the U.S., they could very well force the creation of a back door that would satisfy the FBI, but at the same time lets in those same international and domestic bad guys that the FBI is chasing. This would happen because of the FBI’s time limit—to develop a back door in 60 days (or whatever they set the deadline at) or you’re fined into bankruptcy.

Does the FBI really want to force U.S. communications providers to implement insecure solutions just so they can satisfy their need for instant gratification? Does it really want to force the Facebooks of the world to locate in Canada, the European Union or some other nation that isn’t likely to honor a warrant from a U.S. court? But are such punitive measures really worth it?

For some reason, I’m reminded of a comment from the days of the Vietnam War as reported by legendary journalist Peter Arnett: “We had to burn down the village in order to save it.” Is that really the goal of the federal law-enforcement agencies–to cripple Internet communications and destroy companies that don’t have the means to comply with their demands?



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