A government task force is drafting legislation that would pressure online giants like Facebook, Google, and Skype to give intelligence agencies easier access to online communications as they occur.
The FBI says the legislation is needed to force internet companies to comply with wiretap orders – court orders for the government to intercept suspect communications. As of right now, many companies are reluctant to comply with court wiretapping orders. Often times, companies do not have backdoors built into their software’s that would allow for wiretapping, and they are hesitant to spend time and resources developing these backdoors for the sake of the government.
The proposed legislation would penalize companies that fail to comply with wiretapping orders. Fines would start at tens of thousands of dollars and escalate rapidly.
“The importance to us is pretty clear,” Andrew Weissmann, the FBI’s general counsel said. “We don’t have the ability to go to court and say, ‘We need a court order to effectuate the intercept.’ Other countries have that. Most people assume that’s what you’re getting when you go to a court.”
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The legislation would not tell companies exactly how the wiretapping capabilities must be built. Instead, liberty would be given to each company to develop any tapping method that can produce the needed data.
The proposed legislation will inevitably be met with staunch resistance from many companies and leaders in the technology industry.
Mike Masnick from TechDirt.com says the wiretapping backdoors will not only place unnecessary developmental burdens on companies, but will lead to safety issues as well.
“As we've explained over and over again, this is a really silly proposal, that won't make us any safer,” Masnick said. “Instead, it's likely to make us a lot less secure, because those backdoors will be abused, not just by law enforcement, but by those with malicious intent who will work hard to find the backdoors and make use of them.”
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Marcus Thomas, former director of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division, says the legislation needs to strike a balance between protecting user security and making necessary data available to law enforcement.
“You want to give law enforcement the ability to have the data they’re legally entitled to get, at the same time not burdening industry and not opening up security holes,” he said.
Even if this legislation is implemented, this issue is far from resolved. With how rapidly technology changes, agencies like the FBI and CIA have a long battle ahead of them if they hope to effectively monitor all of the electronic mediums people use to communicate in the 21st century.