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Spy, or pay up: FBI-backed bill would fine US firms for refusing wiretaps

Published time: April 29, 2013 10:55
Reuters/Jim Urquhart

Reuters/Jim Urquhart

A US government task force is drafting FBI-backed legislation that would penalize companies like Google and Facebook for refusing to comply with wiretap orders, media report.

In the new legislation being drafted by US law enforcement officials, refusal to cooperate with the FBI could cost a tech company tens of thousands of dollars in fines, the Washington Post quoted anonymous sources as saying.

The fined company would be given 90 days to comply with wiretap orders. If the organization is unable or unwilling to turn over the communications requested by the wiretap, the penalty sum would double every day.

We don’t have the ability to go to court and say, ‘We need a court order to effectuate the intercept.’ Other countries have that. Most people assume that’s what you’re getting when you go to a court,” FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann told the Washington Post.

If passed in Congress and signed by President Obama, the bill could become a provision of the 1968 Wiretap Act, which require companies to develop mechanisms for obtaining information requested by government investigators.

However, many companies maintain that their resistance to this and similar measures has nothing to do with an unwillingness to help investigators. Google began encrypting its email service following a major hacking attack in 2010; developing wiretap technology could make it and other companies vulnerable, creating “a way for someone to silently go in and activate a wiretap,” said Susan Landau, a former engineer at Sun Microsystems.

The proposed expansion of wiretaps into the digital frontier is the latest in a series of US government efforts to monitor online communications.

Analysts work in a watch and warning center of a cyber security defense lab at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

The recent Boston Marathon bombings were used by some members of Congress as a reason to push through the highly controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protect Act (CISPA), which was passed by the lower house. If CISPA is signed into law, telecommunication companies will be encouraged to share Internet data with the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice concerning national security purposes.

Tech companies, including giants like Facebook and Microsoft, have objected fiercely to the bill, citing customers’ privacy concerns. The bill is currently shelved in the Senate following President Obama’s threat to veto CISPA due to a lack of personal privacy provisions.

Earlier in April, the FBI requested an additional $41 million from the federal government for the recording and analysis of Internet communication. 

The Electronic Privacy Information Center also recently obtained over 1,000 pages of documents proving that the Pentagon has secretly eavesdropped on Internet traffic for several years.

"Senior Obama administration officials have secretly authorized the interception of communications carried on portions of networks operated by AT&T and other Internet service providers, a practice that might otherwise be illegal under federal wiretapping laws," CNET reporter Declan McCullagh wrote.