FBI Surveillance: Agency Wants a Wiretap Backdoor to Web
The FBI wants to create backdoor access to social networks, websites, and Web mail. Its goal is to make the Web accessible to FBI surveillance: the digital equivalent of wiretapping. The issue pits the post-9-11 security state against online privacy concerns. At one time, the FBI could almost always expect Washington to grant its wishes. And that is still a likely outcome. But the fate of the SOPA bill shows that privacy advocates can have influence if they mobilize.
For IT managers at midsize firms, the FBI request raises practical concerns. If it become law, what technical complications may be involved in providing a surveillance backdoor. And how secure will it be against hackers?
As reported by Declan McCullagh at CNET, the FBI is "quietly" seeking a law requiring social networks, websites, and Internet phone services to provide it with backdoor access to communications. The access would give FBI surveillance teams the same ability to monitor these channels that it now has with telephone conversations.
FBI communications intercepts are currently governed by the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). The act was passed in 1994, effectively at the dawn of the Internet era. It provides for surveillance of telecommunications and was extended to cover broadband in 2004. But it does not cover Internet services. These now account for a large share of communications between US citizens that the FBI might want to eavesdrop on.
Competing Interests, New Complications
The FBI has legendary status, though at times in its history it has been intensely controversial. In the past it could usually rely on Congress to provide it with whatever surveillance authority it asked for. This might seem to be particularly the case in the post-9/11 era of broad national security concerns and the Patriot Act.
But Internet privacy advocates have long had a strong base of support in the tech community. The fate of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a case in point. At first seen as a congressional shoo-in, it ended up being stalled, then withdrawn. It is noteworthy that the FBI is quietly asking tech firms not to oppose its Internet surveillance request.
Beyond legal and philosophical considerations, the FBI's request, if enacted, has practical implications. For IT managers at midsize firms, it means a need to add components to any Internet communications solutions that the company develops. And it means new potential security vulnerabilities in vendor solutions it uses. (And who doesn't use Internet communications these days?)
In short, the FBI's Internet wiretapping request means new complications for IT managers at midsize firms.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.