Should Internet communication firms be required to install a wiretapping capacity?
May 9, 2013
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
For the past year, the FBI has been asking Facebook, Skype, Google, and other Internet-based communications companies to go along with its proposal to require wiretapping capacity in their services to make court-ordered surveillance of users easier.
Driven by concerns that terrorists and other criminals are increasingly using the Internet to communicate, the FBI general counsel drafted a proposal that would require social network websites that offer instant messaging, voice-over-Internet-phones, email or other forms of communication to change their coding to ensure that their services can be readily tapped by the FBI. This would allow the law enforcement agency to track communications of suspects in real time.
The proposal is an amendment to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which forced phone companies developing digital phone systems to implement ways for law enforcement to wiretap suspects.
Like phone wiretaps, a court order would be required for any surveillance of communications through the Internet.
The law now instructs companies that receive a court order for a wiretap to provide technical assistance to the government when it is collecting data, but companies have enough wiggle room to argue that they tried and failed to make their technology easily tapped. In its most recent proposal, the FBI moved away from requiring companies to build in wiretapping capacity to fining a company that fails to comply with a court-order wiretap. A company could be fined up to $25,000 a day.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the bureau’s surveillance capabilities are diminishing because, as technology advances, more people are using social networks and email to communicate. The FBI’s tools have become outdated, he said, making much more difficult to wiretap Americans suspected of illegal activities.
Andrew Weissmann, the FBI general counsel, said in a statement that the proposal was aimed only at preserving law enforcement officials’ longstanding ability to investigate suspected criminals, spies and terrorists, subject to a court’s permission.
“This doesn’t create any new legal surveillance authority,” he said. “This always requires a court order. None of the ‘going dark’ solutions would do anything except update the law given means of modern communications.”
Tech insiders argue that the proposal would not only be a hurdle for innovators to develop the next Facebook or Google, but it also might make the country more susceptible to cyber-terrorism.
“I think the FBI’s proposal would render Internet communications less secure and more vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves,” said Gregory T. Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “It would also mean that innovators who want to avoid new and expensive mandates will take their innovations abroad and develop them there, where there aren’t the same mandates.”
TechAmerica, a trade association that represents companies like HP, IBM and eBay, argues that forcing companies to comply with wiretapping laws would cost the companies millions and could usher in a new era of government intrusion into privacy.
Still others argue that the law would essentially give the federal government and the FBI the ability to decide whether a new form of communication could be developed and rolled out to the public.
What do you think?
Should Internet communication firms like Facebook and Google be required to install wiretap capability? Does the FBI need to update its surveillance tools or is its proposal an intrusion of users’ privacy? Would such a requirement harm development of new forms of communications? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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