Feds Want To Fine Online Companies Unless They Make Eavesdropping Easier

Reason 24/7ReasonSome tech companies apparently aren't jumping high enough, fast enough — or at all — when the government orders them to allow access to users' communications, and a federal task force wants to start levying hefty fines unless they fall into line. Interestingly, the Washington Post write-up initially makes it sound as if these companies are heroically (or nefariously, if you're a bit of a boot-licker) telling the authorities to get stuffed in defense of users' privacy. Maybe some are doing that, but as it turns out, the feds are annoyed that companies like Google and Facebook haven't designed eavesdropping into their technology as a capability, and are often simply unable to comply with snooping orders.

From Washington Post:

A government task force is preparing legislation that would pressure companies such as Face­book and Google to enable law enforcement officials to intercept online communications as they occur, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the effort.

Driven by FBI concerns that it is unable to tap the Internet communications of terrorists and other criminals, the task force’s proposal would penalize companies that failed to heed wiretap orders — court authorizations for the government to intercept suspects’ communications. ...

There is currently no way to wiretap some of these communications methods easily, and companies effectively have been able to avoid complying with court orders. While the companies argue that they have no means to facilitate the wiretap, the government, in turn, has no desire to enter into what could be a drawn-out contempt proceeding.

Under the draft proposal, a court could levy a series of escalating fines, starting at tens of thousands of dollars, on firms that fail to comply with wiretap orders, according to persons who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. A company that does not comply with an order within a certain period would face an automatic judicial inquiry, which could lead to fines. After 90 days, fines that remain unpaid would double daily.

Instead of setting rules that dictate how the wiretap capability must be built, the proposal would let companies develop the solutions as long as those solutions yielded the needed data. That flexibility was seen as inevitable by those crafting the proposal, given the range of technology companies that might receive wiretap orders. Smaller companies would be exempt from the fines.

The controversial Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) requires telecommunications companies to make their systems accessible to law enforcement for the purposes of wiretapping, but many online companies aren't covered. Adding an "enforcement provision" to existing wiretap law is apparently considered more "politically palatable" than fighting the political battle necessary to extend CALEA. So, tech companies wouldn't be required to redesign their systems for wiretapping (as telecoms are under CALEA), they would just be penalized if they don't. Uh huh.

Says Center for Democracy & Technology President Leslie Harris:

"This is essentially a 'wiretap tax' that will stunt innovation. What the FBI is proposing sounds benign, but it comes with such onerous penalties that it would force developers to seek pre-approval from the FBI. No one is going to want to face fines that double every day, so they will go to the FBI and work it out in advance, diverting resources, slowing innovation, and resulting in less secure products."

Hall adds that it won't even catch the savvy criminals in a world where communications servers can be based anywhere:

"The sad irony is that this is likely to be ineffective. Building a communications tool today is a homework project for undergraduates. So much is based on open source and can be readily customized. Criminals and other bad actors will simply use homemade communication services based offshore, making them even harder to monitor."

But, at least the feebs will have access to your Facebook status.

Follow this story and more at Reason 24/7.

Spice up your blog or Website with Reason 24/7 news and Reason articles. You can get the widgets here. If you have a story that would be of interest to Reason's readers please let us know by emailing the 24/7 crew at 24_7@reason.com, or tweet us stories at @reason247.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • IceTrey||

    What I find most disturbing is that there are American citizens willing, even eager, to carry out such eavesdropping for the government. And cops wonder why everyone thinks they're assholes.

  • ||

    Ned Flanders, not just for satire any more.

  • $park¥||

    *deep breath* Aaaaah! Smells like freedom.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I don't know why they don't charge these companies as accessories to whatever heinous crime they're investigating.

  • Hugh Akston||

    For the same reason that informants get to keep dealing. Lawr Enforcement can't do its job without accomplices.

  • mr simple||

    But, at least the feebs will have access to your Facebook status.

    Feebs? Racist?

  • Fluffy||

    If you don't already know how to tap it, it's not a wire, and thus not subject to the law.

  • PRX||

    what was it Sherlock Holmes said about it not being his job to make up for the inadequacies of the police?

  • WebBizz||

    Controversial issue. More jobs for lawmen :))

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement