Developers of email, instant-messaging and voice-over-internet-protocol applications would be forced to redesign their services so their contents can be intercepted by law enforcement agents armed with legal wiretap orders under federal legislation reported on Monday by The New York Times.
The legislation would, among other things, require cellphone carriers, websites and other types of service providers to have a way to unscramble encrypted communications traveling over their networks, the report said. It specifically mentions companies such as Research in Motion and Skype, which are popular in part because their cellular communications and VoIP services respectively are widely regarded as offering robust encryption that's impractical if not impossible for government agents to crack.
That in turn has led to warnings by investigators that their ability to wiretap criminal and terrorism suspects is "going dark” as the world increasingly communicates using newer technologies instead of the traditional phone system.
“We're talking about lawfully authorized intercepts,” Valerie E. Caproni, general counsel for the FBI, told The New York Times. “We're not talking expanding authority. We're talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security.”
Under the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, phone and broadband service providers are required to have the technical means in place to eavesdrop on their subscribers. But it doesn't apply to communication service providers, which often offer strong end-to-end encryption services that make it infeasible for them to intercept traffic even through it travels over their networks.
Under a draft bill expected to be submitted to the US Congress when it convenes next year, such services would have to be redesigned, according to Monday's report. Foreign-based providers that do business inside the US would also have to install a domestic office capable of performing intercepts, it said.
The measure is sure to stoke fierce opposition among business leaders, security experts and civil liberties advocates. They argue that the backdoors may have vulnerabilities that can allow hackers to illegally intercept protected communications. Indeed, something similar to that occurred in 2006 when hackers took advantage of legally mandated wiretap functions in Greece to spy on top government officials, including the prime minister.
In addition to threatening the public's privacy, such backdoors can put US-sanctioned services at a competitive disadvantage with those that don't have backdoors built in, critics have charged.
The FBI spent $9.75m last year helping communication companies comply with surveillance requests, the report said. Beyond the costs, the process can significantly delay critical investigations, defenders of the measure said. ®