Overshadowed by news this week that the federal government secretly obtained two months of Associated Press phone records and following a bevy of reports that Bloomberg News reporters routinely employed their parent company’s sophisticated terminal software to spy on employees at financial firms comes far scarier privacy news.
President Obama is set to endorse the work of a Justice Department task force — working on the FBI’s bidding — to prepare legislation allowing the government to wiretap online communications with far greater ease.
The plan would see tech giants like Facebook or Google face hefty fines if they do not build into their messaging systems backdoors enabling at-will government surveillance. The New York Times reports the Obama administration’s apparent decision resolves years of internal debate on the FBI’s 2010 proposal to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act — “a 1994 law that already requires phone and network carriers to build interception capabilities into their systems” — to include internet-based services.
The decision lends credence to FBI Director Robert Mueller’s claim that without the bureau’s ability to carry out court-approved eavesdropping online, the FBI is essentially “going dark” in its monitoring of suspects as communications technology evolves.
According to a Washington Post report, “Under the draft proposal, a court could levy a series of escalating fines, starting at tens of thousands of dollars, on firms that fail to comply with wiretap orders.” A company that refuses to comply with an order within a certain period would face an automatic judicial inquiry, leading to substantial fines, and after 90 days, fines remaining unpaid would double daily.
Foreign-based communications services that do business in the United States and small startups would also be subject to the procedures. Foreign-based companies would be required to have a point of contact on domestic soil that could be served with a wiretap order.
But how are tech companies reacting to the proposal? Not well, say privacy advocates who argue this plan could prove disastrous for innovative companies that fear security risks from hackers who could easily exploit backdoor safeguards, and these firms loathe the potentially huge expenses associated with the plan that may slow down the pace of innovation.
Albert Gidari, Jr., a lawyer who represents technology companies on law enforcement matters told the Times that potential fallout from the plan is politically disastrous as well. When the United States starts imposing fines on foreign internet firms, it may encourage other countries, some of which may be searching for political dissidents, to penalize American companies if they refuse to turn over users’ information. “We’ll look a lot more like China than America after this,” Gidari said. How then might the Chinese react the next time American policymakers object to routine internet wire-tapping practices there?
Claims by the feds that we need cybersecurity legislation, especially bills touting backdoor wiretaps ring hollow. TechDirt blogger Mike Masnick argued it best — this proposal won’t make us any safer, “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.”