The risks of internet wiretapping

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After 9/11, a seismic shift occurred in the nation's surveillance strategy, resulting in the exposure of a warrantless wiretapping program. Now a fresh proposal to create internet-specific wiretapping regulations is reigniting the debate over how far the government should go.

Those who back such legislation argue that the arrival of applications, such as Skype and Facebook, have diminished law enforcement's ability to wiretap suspects. However, those who oppose the measure argue it would hinder privacy and security.

“Building backdoors in software to help the FBI wiretap will attract hackers who want to do the same thing – access confidential communications,” said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The proposed legislation would require all internet communications providers to comply with a wiretap order, including unscrambling encrypted messages, according to a report in the New York Times. Providers that transmit encrypted email would likely be affected, as would social networking sites  and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) providers.

In a 2004 incident, dubbed “Greek Watergate,” hackers exploited so-called backdoor surveillance software built into the mobile phone network Vodaphone Greece to eavesdrop on Greek government officials.
“This problem of insecure backdoors would increase many fold if the FBI's proposals became law,” Nojeim said.

However, James Lewis, director of technology and public policy at the Center for Strategic International Studies, said such claims were “cooked up” by the privacy community to defeat the proposal. “There are so many ways to get into a network that [attackers] don't need this,” he said.

Further, such legislation would not expand the FBI's current ability – it would just preserve it, Lewis said. Under 1994's Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, phone and broadband networks are required to have interception capabilities, Lewis said. As people increasingly communicate online, law enforcement's capabilities will further decrease, making it easier for criminals to get away with crimes.

Both sides, however, seem to agree that trying to reignite the crypto wars of the prior decade is a bad idea. “We tried in the 1990s to restrict encryption and it doesn't work,” Lewis said.


2,376 wiretap orders were executed during 2009, an increase of 26 percent from 2008, resulting in 4,537 arrests.

Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts 
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