Digital Entry Through Your Back Door

A proposed expansion of surveillance authority is being pushed by the DoJ to counter what it calls its ‘Going Dark’ problem.

CYBERSPACE—A few Colombian sex workers now know what it’s like to be fucked by the Secret Service, and in more ways than one, but it may not be too long before we all know what it’s like to have federal law enforcement living inside our asses, collectively and individually. It could get messy.

As CNET’s Declan McCullagh reported Friday, “The FBI is asking Internet companies not to oppose a controversial proposal that would require firms, including Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and Google, to build in backdoors for government surveillance.”

The problem, says the Bureau, is that “the dramatic shift in communication from the telephone system to the Internet has made it far more difficult for agents to wiretap Americans suspected of illegal activities.”

Can’t have that! So the office of the FBI general counsel’s “has drafted a proposed law that the bureau claims is the best solution: requiring that social-networking Web sites and providers of VoIP, instant messaging, and Web e-mail alter their code to ensure their products are wiretap-friendly.”

From the following reaction by an industry rep who saw the draft legislation, it sounds as if the individual is not necessarily looking forward to bending over and spreading them for the feds: “If you create a service, product, or app that allows a user to communicate, you get the privilege of adding that extra coding,” s/he said. A second industry rep told CNET that the requirements only apply to sites or networks that exceed a certain number of users.

According to McCullagh, the proposal expands upon an existing law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) that covers telecommunications but not the internet, and is being pushed hard by the Justice Department and other federal agencies in a bid to address a problematic trend identified by the FBI as “Going Dark,” which refers to the alleged inability of law enforcement to keep track of people as technology advances.

In fact, the FBI reinforced its concerns about going dark Friday, stating in a comment to CNET, “[There are] significant challenges posed to the FBI in the accomplishment of our diverse mission. These include those that result from the advent of rapidly changing technology. A growing gap exists between the statutory authority of law enforcement to intercept electronic communications pursuant to court order and our practical ability to intercept those communications. The FBI believes that if this gap continues to grow, there is a very real risk of the government ‘going dark,’ resulting in an increased risk to national security and public safety.”

But CNET reports that in addition to the DoJ, the federal Communications Department also is interested in tweaking CALEA to include “products that allow video or voice chat over the Internet—from Skype to Google Hangouts to Xbox Live.”

Neither is the effort to expand CALEA new. The FBI has been concerned about this issue since 2006 and began its efforts to get litigation passed seven years ago, reported McCullagh, who added that the only thing keeping the already-written legislation from being considered by Congress is the unwillingness of the Obama Administration to send the bill to the Hill.

“A representative for Sen. Patrick Leahy, head of the Judiciary committee and original author of CALEA, said today that ‘we have not seen any proposals from the administration,'” wrote McCullagh.

From the FBI’s perspective, nothing in the proposed law expands current wiretapping law, which will continue to require a court order. The idea, they say, is to improve their technological ability to “provide results,” meaning making access easier. Toward that end, Subsentio, a Colorado-based company that sells CALEA compliance products, told CNET that the proposed measure “provides a ‘safe harbor’ for internet companies as long as the interception techniques are ‘good enough’ solutions approved by the attorney general,” or “if companies ‘supply the government with proprietary information to decode information’ obtained through a wiretap or other type of lawful interception, rather than ‘provide a complex system for converting the information into an industry standard format.'”

Either way, the FBI is angling to have the presumably anonymous ability to keep tabs on virtually every form of person-to-person communications available, which is something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. In addition to several critics of the law mentioned in the CNET article, including EFF, the Computer and Communications Industry Association and TechAmerica, a trade association that includes representatives of HP, eBay, IBM, Qualcomm, and other tech companies on its board of directors, contributor Glenn Greenwald published a blistering denunciation of the effort Sunday in a piece called, “Surveillance State democracy.”

“The procedure being used here by the FBI to obtain these powers is just as significant to me as the substance of the policy it wants,” warns Greenwald.  “Notice how the FBI—in order to obtain these new powers—does not believe it needs to persuade the American citizenry to accept it. Instead, they’re meeting with the people who actually hold power over our laws—industry executives—in order to plead with them not to oppose this. FBI officials even planned a pilgrimage to Silicon Valley ‘to meet with Internet companies’ CEOs and top lawyers’ in the hope of obtaining their permission to proceed with this new scheme.”

From secret surveillance by government of P2P communications to secret surveillance by ISPs of the content you are downloading, it would appear that the brave new world imagined by the internet could yet become a maze for rats.

The good news, according to Greenwald, is that it is still “possible for citizens to meaningfully oppose this relentless expansion of the Surveillance State.” In light of his claim that “those who continue to expand the National Security and Surveillance State appear to have little fear of any meaningful citizen backlash,” however, Greenwald is also saying that the time to “mobilize meaningful citizen opposition to growing government surveillance powers” is now.



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