United States President Barack Obama is likely to endorse a Federal Bureau of Investigation effort that would ensure all Internet companies in the US provide a way for the government to conduct undetected, backdoor surveillance.
The FBI has been considering solutions to their so-called “Going Dark” problem as intricate methods of encryption and advances in technology have made it increasingly difficult for the federal government and law enforcement to gain access to online communications conducted in the shadows of the Web. Should the latest efforts of the FBI move forward, though, Internet companies that act as any conduit for correspondence of any kind would be heavily fined if they don’t include in their infrastructure a way for the government to eavesdrop on that dialogue in real time.
At a press conference in Washington, DC in March, FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann said the Department of Justice was determined to have the means to wiretap any online communication by 2014 and called it “a huge priority for the FBI.” Further developments last month revealed that the FBI was considering a fine-based model under which Internet companies would be forced to comply or risk being penalized beyond repair.
On Tuesday, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage cited Obama administration officials as saying the president “is on the verge of backing” that very plan.
Savage explained that while companies would be allowed to operate without giving the government backdoor access, the fees would likely limit the number of entities willing to challenge the order. As RT reported last month, a company that doesn’t comply with the FBI’s orders would be fined $25,000 after 90 days. Additional penalties would then be tacked on every day an Internet service provider, website or other company fails to comply — with the price of the penalty doubling each day they don’t assist investigators.
“While the FBI’s original proposal would have required Internet communications services to each build in a wiretapping capacity, the revised one, which must now be reviewed by the White House, focuses on fining companies that do not comply with wiretap orders,” wrote Savage. “The difference, officials say, means that start-ups with a small number of users would have fewer worries about wiretapping issues unless the companies became popular enough to come to the Justice Department’s attention.”
Savage quoted a statement in his article from Weissmann in which the FBI attorney said, “This doesn’t create any new legal surveillance authority.” Instead, said Weissman, “None of the ‘going dark’ solutions would do anything except update the law given means of modern communications.”
“This always requires a court order,” he said.
Coincidently, that same issue has had major developments in its own right this week. On Wednesday morning, CNET reporter Declan McCullagh wrote that the Justice Department circulated memos in which they insisted that obtaining a search warrant isn’t necessary to eavesdrop on Internet communication of any sort.
“The US Department of Justice and the FBI believe they don't need a search warrant to review Americans' e-mails, Facebook chats, Twitter direct messages and other private files, internal documents reveal,” wrote McCullagh, citing a government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and provided to CNET.
According to McCullagh, those documents include very specific instructions from high-importance officials that demonstrate the Justice Department’s disinterest in applying established law when it comes to eavesdropping on Americans. While Weissmann made the argument that the FBI plan reportedly backed by the president won’t change what rules the DoJ operates by, the memos obtained by McCullagh paints the Obama White House as an administration unwilling to work with the already broad surveillance powers provided to it.
In one memo unearthed by the ACLU, McCullagh said the US attorney for Manhattan instructed his office that an easy-to-obtain legal paper that requires no judicial oversight is all that’s needed to obtain personal correspondence.
“[A] subpoena -- a piece of paper signed by a prosecutor, not a judge -- is sufficient to obtain nearly ‘all records from an ISP,’” McCullagh wrote.
In another instance, McCullagh said the US attorney in Houston, Texas obtained the "contents of stored communications" from another ISP without getting a judge to sign a warrant.
One current law that limits how and when authorities can obtain a suspect’s email pursuant to a criminal investigation, the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, provides that while a warrant is needed for relatively recent correspondence, a comparably easier to get administrative subpoena is all that’s required to get communication older than 180 days. Provisions of the ECPA have been largely unchanged since it was passed in the mid-1980s, but last month a Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amendment that would require a warrant in all instances.
In advocating for fewer restrictions when obtaining store communication, the FBI’s Wessmann said in April that another law, 1994’s Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, needs to be expanded so investigators can leap over current hurdles that keep them from conducting real time wiretaps of online discussions.
“You do have laws that say you need to keep things for a certain amount of time, but in the cyber realm you can have companies that keep things for five minutes,” he said. “You can imagine totally legitimate reasons for that, but you can also imagine how enticing that ability is for people who are up to no good because the evidence comes and it goes.”
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, renewed calls across the country have been made to make it easier for investigators to quickly conduct surveillance — in and off the Web. A recent poll found that roughly two-thirds of Americans favored more surveillance cameras in public places, and now the nation’s top law officials are asking for increased spy power not just on the streets but on the Web.
Earlier this month, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said at a discussion in Washington, “When you come across an advocate for one thing — an advocate for security, and advocate for privacy — they’re often arguing from a position without understanding that it’s a two-edged sword.”
“For example, very strong encryption would allow you and I to have a very, very secure communication: If we were criminals, if we were dissidents, if we were martyrs or if we were just doing a little business,” he said. “If you could figure out a way to ban very strong encryption from evil people and only allow good people…then this would be easy,” he said.