Eavesdropping on Internet Communications
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a new plan to intercept Internet messages, calls and video chats. Instead of requiring companies like Skype and Google to build surveillance capabilities into their services as it suggested in 2010, the F.B.I. now proposes fining companies that fail to comply with court-ordered wiretaps.
The new approach has met less opposition from other agencies, like the Commerce Department, than the earlier plan, which went nowhere because some officials worried that it would hurt innovation by imposing expensive and technically difficult requirements on start-up Internet-based communication services.
Fines, some officials believe, would be less of a burden on new businesses because they might not have to worry about developing the ability to conduct wiretaps right away. The White House is evaluating the plan for submission to Congress.
The F.B.I. has long complained that it is becoming ever harder to carry out court-approved, real-time eavesdropping on criminal suspects since people are communicating without picking up a phone. The agency argues that the monitoring of Internet-based services does not expand government surveillance, but merely updates the current wiretap law. Judges would still have to authorize wiretaps, and would impose the fines if the services did not comply.
But tech companies and advocates for greater privacy and security say the threat of fines would still force companies to build complex wiretapping capabilities into their services from the start (allowing wiretapping on peer-to-peer services like Skype will be particularly difficult). And they argue that opening systems to surveillance could make them vulnerable to hackers, a serious problem.
Some experts say there are other ways to monitor suspects. A recent paper by four academics in the journal IEEE Security & Privacy argues that the government could get court orders to install software directly on the computers of suspects instead of going through Internet companies.
The administration and Congress need to analyze carefully the F.B.I.’s proposal, details of which have not been made public. New rules will have to strike the right balance between privacy and cybersecurity and the government’s need to monitor criminal activi