Should Government Mandate Backdoors for Snooping on the Internet?


This isn't idle speculation. Hackers exploited wiretapping features built into the telephone system in Greece and were able to eavesdrop upon cellular telephone calls made by cabinet ministers and the prime minister himself.

Back doors to enable interception of cell phone calls are already required by CALEA – imagine the security risk if the mandate for back doors was extended to application based communication services.

There is a reason that U.S. government officials use Blackberries; the Blackberry enterprise service is more secure than alternatives. Do we really want to build in back doors to more secure services like Blackberry in order to facilitate FBI access to Blackberry communications when doing so will increases the vulnerability of the communications of U.S. officials' to foreign intelligence agencies?

It's ironic. The President just launched "Cybersecurity Awareness Month," while the FBI is proposing measures that weaken cybersecurity.

Privacy in Peril

FBI surveillance is in the U.S. is already at record levels. In 2009, 2,376 federal and state wiretaps were conducted in criminal investigations, a figure that eclipses any other year. This amount electronic snooping exacts a huge toll on privacy. For example, last year each wiretap captured an average of 3,763 communications, of which a whopping 82 percent were non-incriminating, according to government records.

Meanwhile, the legal obstacles to surveillance are eroding on a regular basis; after 9/11 that trend accelerated. Now, the FBI wants the last vestiges of technological hurdles broken -- a request that Congress has rebuffed in earlier FBI wiretap proposals.

We are edging closer and closer to being a surveillance state. So it's a legitimate question: What are the limits on the government's power to intrude on our lives? Should the rule be that every form of communication be equally accessible to the government as every other? Privacy would take a body blow if a government back door were built into every technology.

Our current laws governing government access to information have already been far outstripped by technology (link to DDP.) When a few companies are required to hold the keys to millions of communications, the temptation to spy on people will be difficult to resist.

Innovation Sacrificed

The Internet is an engine of innovation. Every day, small innovators are working in their garages and dorm rooms, as well as in small companies, to launch hundreds of new applications and technologies.

Should each new communications technology be required to make design changes and get FBI sign off on its design before it launches? Who should pay for the delay in bringing new technologies to market or the cost of compliance? And what would it mean for innovation to have a law enforcement agency be the final arbiter of technical design?

When CALEA was first enacted, it placed a massive financial burden on the major telecommunications providers, but taxpayers absorbed a substantial part of that bill. But in today's economy, it seems unlikely that this FBI plan will come with financial support for the smallest of innovators to meet new technical standards.

More likely, the morass of legal and technical specifications, the cost of compliance and potential sanctions will simply scare off innovators or force some current applications to be drastically altered.

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