The FBI is working on getting a new law passed that will give them almost full access into an American’s life. And no, it’s not the ability to wiretap phone calls, this time it’s the Internet.
Currently, the FBI has free reign to pretty much tap into any telephone conversation they please. And we all clearly know that the majority of correspondence happens over the Internet nowadays. Most people now turn to the Internet for easier, cheaper, and privacy protected communication, which leaves the government almost powerless to monitor these conversations. To regain control, the FBI is trying to pass a wiretapping law that would allow the agency to monitor the Internet the same way it monitor telephone conversations. When you consider that the FBI had full reign over telephone wiretapping, it seems to make sense that they’re asking for access into the digital world, right?
Some argue no. With all the information passed though the Internet ranging from financial to corporate and political secrets, giving the FBI access to this information could potentially put the entire nation to risk. Aside from constitutional privacy issues, there are many security issues that come into play.
The major problem with the proposed law is that it would require all communication software and services to build a backdoor that the FBI could access at any time they choose. That means that all software and services that have encryption would be considered illegal and would be forced to redesign or leave the American market.
“It would make Skype illegal,” said Peter Neumann, a scientist who testified to Congress in the 1990s when an earlier version of this same proposal was investigated.
A similar law was proposed by the FBI and NSA in the 1990’s. It was argued that national security would be threatened if there was no way to spy on encrypted e-mails, IMs and phone calls. After a prolonged battle, the security community argued that national security was actually strengthened by wide use of encryption to secure computers and sensitive business and government communications.
University of Pennsylvania computer science professor Matt Blaze, a cryptography expert who co-authored a paper in 1998 about the technical limitations of requiring back doors in crypto, says he’s confused by the return of the dream of perfect surveillance capabilities:
“This seems like a far more baffling battle in a lot of ways… In the 1990s, the government was trying to prevent something necessary, good and inevitable… In this case they are trying to roll back something that already happened and that people are relying on,” Blaze said.
It was also shown that by creating a backdoor for government use, skilled hackers would be able to easily break in, giving them total access to all encrypted information such as financial, government, and everyday web communication information.
According to the government’s own records web encryption difficulties getting in law enforcement’s way are extremely rare. In 2009, for instance, the government got court approval for 2,376 wiretaps and encountered an encryption wall only once, and was still able to get the contents of the communication. Statistics for other years show no problems whatsoever for the government.
It looks like this issue will go to congress some time next year and if brought to public attention will hopefully once again end up in favor of the security industry and keeping encryption alive.