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 the Times.
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 and Saudi 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.