President Obama Plans to Wiretap All Your Online Communications?

| by Sarah Fruchtnicht
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President Obama is allegedly looking to back a plan by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that would make it much easier to wiretap any and all communications on the Internet - including Facebook, Google, instant-messaging services and emails.

The surveillance overhaul comes as FBI Director Robert Mueller says that traditional wiretapping is “going dark,” as communications technology continues to evolve and make court-approved wiretapping of suspects’ phones obsolete.

However, the FBI’s proposal would require rebuilding the Internet with wiretapping capacity, forcing sites like Facebook to change the way they operate so that the government can plug into your communications through a back door. The revised proposal currently under review by the White House would also fine companies that do not comply with federal wiretapping. Only the largest communications companies would be under Justice Department scrutiny.

To put it another way, as Phillymag Blog Contributor Joel Mathis wrote, “[Obama] wants the Internet rebuilt, piece by piece, so the government can more easily spy on you.”

“I think the F.B.I.’s proposal would render Internet communications less secure and more vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves,” Gregory T. Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology said. “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.”

“This doesn’t create any new legal surveillance authority,” Andrew Weissman, general counsel of the FBI, said in a statement. “This always requires a court order. None of the ‘going dark’ solutions would do anything except update the law given means of modern communications.”

The 2010 proposal from the FBI sought to expand the 1994 Communications Assistant for Law Enforcement Act, which forces phone and network carriers to have interception capabilities within their systems. The new law would also cover Internet-based communication services.

The current proposal is more focused on the legal aspects of wiretapping than simply the wiretapping capacity of social media. It strengthens wiretap orders issued by judges, making it possible to fine companies that do not comply. For instance, in the event that a company receives a notice that it requires surveillance capabilities, they have 30 days to comply before they incur a fine, starting at $25,000 a day.

“We’ll look a lot more like China than America after this,” said Albert Gidari Jr., who represents technology companies on law enforcement matters.

Gidari said that if the U.S. fines a foreign Internet firm, it could expect other countries to begin penalizing American firms for refusing to turn over user information.

Making information accessible to the FBI also raises concerns about hackers potentially finding a way through the same back door to attain sensitive, private information.

“At the very time when the nation is concerned about cybersecurity, the FBI proposal has the potential to make our communications less secure,” said Joe Hall, a senior staff technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Once you build a wiretap capability into products and services, the bad guys will find a way to use it.”

Sources: PhillyMag, NY Times