Government seeks wiretap for Internet communications

By Mike Fischer on September 28, 2010, 10:00 AM
As if September hasn't been an interesting enough month for governmental Internet regulation, the Obama administration is now pushing for a federal law that would require built-in backdoors for law enforcement surveillance of email, instant messaging, and other communication tools. Many of these services, which maintain the security of their content through detailed encryption methods, would need to implement procedures allowing them to intercept and decrypt messages when served with a wiretap order.

If this sounds threatening to you, you're not alone. The ACLU is already on the case, condemning the proposal as a "huge privacy invasion." James Dempsey, VP of the Center for Democracy and Technology, called the proposed law a challenge to the "fundamental elements of the Internet revolution." As providers will foot the bill for implementing changes and be forced to expend resources that could be better spent elsewhere, the government may be imposing limitations that stifle product innovation and prevent start-up companies from getting off the ground.

But Valerie Caproni, general counsel for the FBI, defends the proposed law stating, "We're not talking expanding authority. We're talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security." The government argues that its information gathering methods are "going dark," a term used to describe the limitations of traditional wiretap methods given the decreasing importance of telephone communication.

The government maintains that any type of electronic monitoring would still require a court order, and that the interception ability would lie with the service provider and not in the hands of a governmental agency, thus retaining confidentiality. But the opening of security holes could lead to exploits from the outside, and with the major social networking privacy leaks of the last year still fresh in our minds, the move could undermine user confidence in those services significantly. The proposal is expected to be submitted to Congress when it reconvenes next year.

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