Should Government Mandate Backdoors for Snooping on the Internet?

FBI pushes for technological backdoors to Internet communications.

ByABC News
August 23, 2010, 1:31 PM

Oct. 8, 2010— -- Research In Motion is locked in a struggle with several countries, including India and the United Arab Emirates, which are demanding the company hand over the keys to the encrypted messages flying back and forth between BlackBerry users. For most U.S. citizens the travails of RIM were little more than a sideshow, playing out in sidebar stories of mainstream media.

But last month I cautioned readers here about something I called the "BlackBerry Butterfly Effect," where, "in this era of a globally interconnected world, the clash between technology, user privacy, and national security anywhere in the world eventually affects us all.

"Once a company like RIM gives in to one government's demands for surveillance capabilities that do not properly protect privacy rights," I wrote, "other governments will demand equivalence."

What I didn't know then was how quickly the BlackBerry Butterfly Effect would hit U.S. shores. Answer: Right now.

According to news reports, the FBI is asking for expansive authority to require that all Internet communications platforms, including web-based social media networks and end-to-end encrypted networks like Skype and RIM, build in some kind of a technical back door allowing law enforcement easy wiretapping access.

Although the proposal hasn't been made public and is still under discussion within the administration, news reports suggest that the FBI proposal seeks to dramatically expand on the 1994 law -- known as the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) -- which required telecommunications carriers to build easy wiretap access into their networks.

Since that time, CALEA has been expanded to broadband and VoIP providers, but stopped short of covering the application layer of the Internet. That's because Congress made clear when it passed CALEA that the Internet was out of bounds.

Now, the FBI is poised to ask Congress to extend CALEA to cover the Internet and to reverse course on the law's important treatment of encrypted communications, which provides that telecommunications carriers are not responsible for decrypting communications or ensuring the government's ability to decrypt them, unless the carrier both provides the encryption and holds the keys.

That policy has permitted the development and use of strong encryption, benefiting both commerce and civil liberties. If the FBI gets its way, companies will be required to hold a copy of the keys for all encrypted communications on their networks, or otherwise provide the government a back door into targeted communications.