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FBI Pushes for Wiretap-Friendly Social Networks

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has drafted a controversial proposal that would require social networking sites, VoIP services and other online platforms to build a wiretap-friendly back door.

The government organization is making the rounds to social networking companies including Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and Google to urge them not to oppose the proposal.

In a time when more lines of communication are open, such as instant messenger, social networking sites and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the FBI worries it won’t have access to communications between suspicious individuals.

A ZDNet article states that “The FBI General Counsel’s office 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.”

The proposal hopes to amend the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA. CALEA requires telecommunications providers to provide the tools for an easily implemented wiretap. In 2004 the Federal Communications Commission extended CALEA to encompass broadband networks.

In defense of the original CALEA enacted in October of 1994, the FCC says it was intended to preserve the ability of “law enforcement agencies to conduct electronic surveillance by requiring that telecommunications carriers and manufacturers of telecommunications equipment modify and design their equipment, facilities and services to ensure that they have the necessary surveillance capabilities.”

The law includes common carriers, facilities-based broadband internet access providers, and providers of interconnected VoIP service. The agency fears a “Going Dark” trend. Going Dark is a term the FBI revealed in early 2011 to describe how new technologies and rapidly changing communications modes erode the ability of the government to conduct court ordered intercepts of wire and electronic communications.

Sources say the FBI has held meetings with Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Facebook as well as the White House and U.S. Senators to discuss the proposal. In talks with internet companies, the FBI reportedly urged companies not to oppose the action.

Many social networking companies already comply to law enforcement actions, to a degree. The “safety center” page on Facebook states the conditions under which it cooperates with law enforcement authorities within the U.S. and international jurisdictions.

In the U.S., Facebook complies to the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA). Under this act the social network complies with federal and law enforcement requests with a valid subpoena issued in connection with an official criminal investigation; a court order issued under 18 U.S.C Section 3703(d); or a search warrant issued under the procedures described in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Recent actions by the FBI to combat cyber threats and terrorist attacks include the investigation into anonymous bomb threats at the University of Pittsburgh last month, which resulted in the seizure of servers used by a remailer to mask the origin and identity of a sender and the discovery that municipal systems were under attack by hackers.

Compliance with the proposal, if it goes through, will take effect when an online service reaches a certain minimum of users. This means that smaller social networking sites or VoIP networks won’t be subject to provide code on their services that grants an easy backdoor wiretap for the FBI. That’s according to a source that spoke to ZDNet.

The FCC is reportedly behind the proposal. The agency would further the scope of CALEA to encompass any voice or video chat service on the internet.

While the proposal would grant a broad surveillance capability on the FBI and other law enforcement organizations, the agency doesn’t have the resources or the need to monitor all activities on social networks, VoIP services and other internet platforms. The FBI will use the service to conduct targeted surveillance.