Sides dig in as FBI warns of 'going dark' in online era
Privacy and civil liberty advocates argue the FBI has not established the need to amend wiretap law to create online 'back doors' to track crime
May 11, 2012 — CSO — To the FBI, it would be substantively the same as what the agency has had the authority to do for generations with a court warrant: wiretap phones to listen in on possibly criminal communications. To privacy and civil liberties advocates, it amounts to another expansion of the FBI's already excessive authority to spy on innocent American citizens.
"It" is a proposed amendment to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, that would require social-networking Web sites and providers of VoIP (such as Skype), instant messaging and e-mail to provide a so-called "backdoor" to give the FBI the same ability to tap into communications as they can with mobile or landline phone networks.
And the common targets of a lobbying war over the legislation are the various tech companies that would be affected, along with the tech industry in general. The FBI hasn't asked for the outright support of giants like Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and Google to offer outright support for the the law, but has quietly been asking them not to oppose it.
CNET's Declan McCullagh reported last week on the FBI's argument, that the massive shift of communications from the telephone system to the Internet "has made it far more difficult for the agency to wiretap Americans suspected of illegal activities."
The law has already been expanded once, in 2004, to include broadband networks, but still excludes Web companies. The FBI says its surveillance efforts are in danger of "going dark," if it is not allowed to monitor the way people communicate now.
As McCullagh put it, "From the FBI's perspective, expanding CALEA to cover VoIP, Web e-mail, and social networks isn't expanding wiretapping law: If a court order is required today, one will be required tomorrow as well. Rather, it's making sure that a wiretap is guaranteed to produce results."
Not surprisingly, a range of opponents from privacy advocates to legal experts disagree -- strongly.
The affects of the amendment could easily spill into the economic arena, says John Koetsier in VentureBeat, who begins a May 4 post with, "George Orwell was an optimist."
In "1984's" Oceania, the government could only monitor its citizens over TV screens. This, he notes, would allow surveillance through any kind of communication service. "I can't imagine a better way to kill U.S. competitiveness in the tech sector abroad," he writes. "What European, Asian, or South American will want to use a U.S. product such as Google+ or Facebook knowing that the U.S. government has easy access to whatever is said, shared, uploaded, or done there? This could accelerate massive migration away from predominantly American tools and networks."