Telecommunications Policy

Feds Frustrated With Their Inability to Wiretap This Here New-Fangled Internet Thing


The federal government knows you're Skyping. And Blackberrying. And chat-rooming. And peer-to-peer communicating. And otherwise trading messages, perhaps encrypted, on the Interwebz. But it doesn't always have the ability to intercept your digital-era communications or figure out what, exactly, you're saying. And so, as Jesse Walker noted in today's morning links, law enforcement authorities are readying new legislation to change that.

Federal law enforcement and national security officials are preparing to seek sweeping new regulations for the Internet, arguing that their ability to wiretap criminal and terrorism suspects is "going dark" as people increasingly communicate online instead of by telephone.       


Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications—including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct "peer to peer" messaging like Skype—to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.       

The bill, which the Obama administration plans to submit to lawmakers next year, raises fresh questions about how to balance security needs with protecting privacy and fostering innovation. And because security services around the world face the same problem, it could set an example that is copied globally.       

James X. Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet policy group, said the proposal had "huge implications" and challenged "fundamental elements of the Internet revolution"—including its decentralized design.   

"They are really asking for the authority to redesign services that take advantage of the unique, and now pervasive, architecture of the Internet," he said. "They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function."       

The Times notes that federal "investigators have been concerned for years that changing communications technology could damage their ability to conduct surveillance." And the FBI says it's simply preserving its existing intercept authority, not expanding it. But it's hard to say you're not asking for expanded authority when you are, in fact, pushing for new rules and greater control over online communications. Nor is it clear that encrypted connections are actually all that much of a barrier to law enforcement investigations. As Cato's Julian Sanchez notes, the most recent report on government wiretap efforts "cited only one instance in which encryption was encountered, out of 2,376 wiretap orders."

Meanwhile, even if you buy the FBI's argument, this effort to preserve its authority could entail significant changes in the overall design of the Net—changes that are more likely to open the web to government interference, not just in the U.S., but worldwide.  And those changes would be likely to have unpleasant long-term ripple effects in terms of what security and communications technology gets developed. As Sanchez argues, forcing security technology creators to design their systems with back doors is essentially a request for an "insecure Internet":

They are basically demanding that providers design their systems for breach. This is massively stupid from a security perspective.  In the summer of 2004, still unknown hackers exploited surveillance software built in to one of Greece's major cell networks to eavesdrop on high government officials, including the prime ministers. The recent hack of Google believed to originate in China may have used a law-enforcement portal to acquire information about dissidents. More recently, we learned of a Google engineer abusing his access to the system to spy on minors.

This demand has implications beyond the United States. Networks designed for interception by U.S. authorities will also be more easily tapped by authoritarian governments looking to keep tabs on dissidents. And indeed, this proposal echoes demands from the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that their Blackberry system be redesigned for easier interception. By joining that chorus, the U.S. makes it more difficult for firms to resist similar demands from unlovely regimes.

NEXT: Free Speech and the New Supreme Court Term

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  1. I haven’t even read this whole post and my initial response is:

    Fuck you with highly polished brass knobs on.

    1. Can we substitute rusty pieces of I-beam encrusted with broken glass for the shiny brass knobs?

      1. Try mentioning unnatural relationships with sheep. That’s always a hit.

        1. There is nothing unnatural about it.

  2. There they go again……….

  3. Net Neutrality will move us towards this goal.

    1. Net Neutrality will certainly give the FCC the power to implement this.

      I don’t understand all the liberals who say, “Yes, the government should have the same power over the Internet that it does over telephones and TV.”

      1. They are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that some important aspect of life is outside of the government’s control.

    2. The FCC wants the Internet 1984-style

  4. Now let’s see Verizon and Google submit their own joint plan to aid in this compliance…you know… voluntarily.

  5. The Times notes that federal “investigators have been concerned for years that changing communications technology could damage their ability to conduct surveillance.”

    No shit. And gun ownership damages their ability to totally and completely oppress the populance. Such are the lamentations of the tyrant…

  6. They are basically demanding that providers design their systems for breach. This is massively stupid from a security perspective.

    It is certainly not the first time nor the last time the State asks people to act in stupid ways, just to amuse the overlords……

  7. Get rid of victimless crimes, and you pretty much eliminate the need for intercepting private communication.


    2. Oh Galt, enough with the pious libertarian bullshit. Even victimful crimes can be solved more easily (and deterred more easily) by intercepting private communications.

      Now, I’m of the position that making the changes to the Net the govt is asking for will be far more destructive to society than it would be helpful to enforcing the law, but pious bilge like the above serves only to make civil libertarians look nutty.

      1. For Galt’s sake, why don’t you librarians go off to salmonella if you don’t want to be speed on!

      2. Even victimful crimes can be solved more easily (and deterred more easily) by intercepting private communications.

        Yes, and the device that the po-po or the gummint agency uses to do that? What’s it called?

        Come one, everyone, all together now – can you say “WARRANT”? I knew you could!

        OK, now this one is harder. Can you say “probable cause?” Yay!!

  8. And the FBI says it’s simply preserving its existing intercept authority, not expanding it

    This is bullshit. The FBI already has the intercept authority. No one’s taken it away from them. There’s nothing in their existing authority that says that I (or anyone else) have to hand the FBI clarity.

    The FBI may listen and intercept all of my communications if they have probable cause and have secured the proper and legal warrants. Their problems in being able to understand the communications are all their own.

    1. This.

      It would be like requiring phone companies to provide an English translation of every telephone conversation they want to listen in on.

      1. From the FBI’s point of view, they’re losing a capability. Someone invents a new method that they can’t tap, that to them is losing a capability. (Just as replacing POTS with encrypted VOIP would be.)

        Yeah, it’s pretty much bullshit, but it’s not too difficult to understand their mindset.

        1. But they can tap it. It’s just hard, and when they do tap it, they claim the can’t understand what they’ve tapped.

          This would be the equivalent of passing a law where all CB Radio manufacturers have to provide a secondary transmission over a cell phone line that the FBI can easily listen in on… because the CB transmitters can move making it too hard to follow.

  9. Say, isn’t it time to update that poster so that Uncle Sam looks vaguely like Obama rather than Bush?

      1. He said Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom.

  10. You know who else wanted to monitor the interwebz?

    1. James Knox Polk?

  11. I’m encrypting my thoughts. Just in case.

    1. All your thoughts are belong to us.

    2. Please provide them, unencrypted and in an organized, coherent fashion upon request… oh, and what does “crumb bun” mean?

    3. Won’t do you any good once our Mind Control Beacon is complete.

    4. “I’m encrypting my thoughts”

      The computers tell us what you’re going to think before you think it.’re under arrest.

  12. Didn’t Obama say something about stopping this shit? Oh, that’s right. For a microsecond, I forgot he was an inveterate liar.

    1. I think Jim Geraghty at NRO summed it up best: all statements made by Barack Obama come with an expiration date. All of them.

    2. er.. invertabrate

      1. off to salmonella with you, librarian fool!

        1. Ah, salmonella, the librarian pair of dice.

  13. As someone who worked at the NSA (national secrity agency) in my youth, it is the bureacratic dogma at its most dogmatic. They can’t listen to, read, understand, or act on a teeny, tiny fraction of what they already intercept, but by God, they don’t want there to be anything out there that they can’t intercept.
    O, and sometimes, those damn sneeky criminals, spies, and foreigners, what they say on the telephone isn’t true, ON PURPOSE!

    1. The other issue, as I understand it, is that much of the problem can already be solved by traffic analysis: simply knowing who is communicating tells you a lot.

  14. I’m surprised that encryption or anything other than copying the federal government on all communications is still legal.

    Freedom is a bitch, isn’t it?

    1. We have John Ashcroft to thank for much of it being legal.

      1. Indeed, Ashcroft was good on encryption in the Senate, and he was far better in the Bush Administration than nearly everyone else, from “moderates” (like Frum and those who hated the disloyal) to Cheney.

        I always thought that much, perhaps most, of the opposition to Ashcroft arose from pure bigotry.

        1. Ashcroft did bring some of it on himself with stupidity like covering nudity on statues.

          But, yeah, otherwise agree. He and Paul O’Neill were the only decent cabinet choices by Bush, and neither lasted very long (although Ashcroft was much longer than O’Neill).

          1. Ashcroft did bring some of it on himself with stupidity like covering nudity on statues.

            He should have sucked it up and bore it, even though the press was being childish by insisting on repeatedly photographing him (and running the photograph) with the statue in-frame and beside him because it amused them.

            And the insane outburst against him long predated the whole statue controversy anyway. When he was picked I thought “That’s a great pick because he’s pretty good on civil liberties in the Senate but the Religious Right will love him as one of theirs.” Unfortunately, I forgot to count on him being hated for being religious too.

            Pentacostals tend not trust the government very much; Baptists at least have states and areas where they’re a majority.

      2. And as Declan reminds us, we nearly had Biden to blame for something similar to this ten years ago, since Biden proposed a similar bill back when Ashcroft was trying to legalize encryption.

  15. Bracing myself for massively stupid sheep comments like “if you have nothing to hide blah blah blah”.

    1. don’t you mean “if you have nothing to hide bah bah bah” 😉

      1. I did not fuck that sheep! No, I’m not feeling guilty, not one bit. You can’t prove it was me anyway.
        This is slander, uh I mean libel!
        Where’s my lawyer!?

        1. Off fucking a sheep. Well, he never said he WASN’T off fucking sheep. So clearly, he could be fucking sheep RIGHT NOW instead of representing you.

          I hope that makes you feel better.

          1. How about we coin a new term – “Fucked the sheep”. It’ll be for blogs what “jumping the shark” is for TV shows.

            “That reason blog used to be good, until they went and fucked the sheep.”

    2. The proper response to “If you have nothing to hide…” is “You first”.

      Some specifics:

      * Government to answer Freedom of Information requests. All of them. Promptly.
      * Let’s see that file Mr. bush was showing all over the world about why we had to invade Afganistan.
      * Lets have the lists of extraordinary renditions and lets see who authorized them. While were at out, pony who was tortured when and on whose say-so.
      * Police department to publish the names of officers involved in a various death and puppycides, and to acknowledge that the public is entitled to film them as they go about their duties.

      and so on ad nauseum.

      That’s really a trivial excuse to beat down because the authoritarians have so much more to hide than the people they want to rule…

      1. Let’s see that file Mr. bush was showing all over the world about why we had to invade Afganistan.

        Don’t you mean Iraq?

        IIRC, Afganistan was pretty clear cut. The U.S. demanded that the Taliban hand over the Al-Queda members. The Taliban refused.

        Thus the Casus Belli.

        1. I quite agree.

          But so what?

          He said trust us. We did. And even after the threat was neutralized they held onto the secrets.

          That does not make me willing to trust again in the future. The whole stupidity surounding Iraq is just icing on the cake of “No, we can’t let you see the basis on which we waged a good war, and trust us it was good…”

        2. Perhaps I should expand on that comment a little. Mr Bush surprised me by not going off half cocked. Instead he (and various lieutenants) went around to a substantital fraction of the worlds governments showing them a file about how we knew the Al Queda did it and knew they were in Afganistan with the Taliban’s consent.

          Fair enough. Best foreign policy move of his administrations.

          But we still haven’t seen what was in that super-secret-file that they showed to dozens of other governments. WTF?

          1. I believe it was common knowledge that Al-Queda was in Afghanistan.

            I will go out on a limb and suggest the secret part of the file was ‘sources and methods’.

  16. Note to Skype:

    Relocate your business operations to Costa Rica. That is all.

  17. What about open source encryption communication tools?

    1. Didn’t the legislation in ’94 (‘clipper chip’ and all that) very nearly outlaw public key encryption?

      1. It did not outlaw PGP, which is, for all intents and purposes, uncrackable.

        1. I don’t think it did anything. Clipper mostly didn’t happen, if I recall correctly.

        2. What about for all intensive purposes?

          Yeahbut seriously, what about Paul’s question? Don’t they have to outlaw encryption entirely? Or do they really expect to be able to put a backdoor in open source tools?

          1. click click clack eki eki thwang

          2. you goofy librarian, you have to just tow the lion and talk about intensive porpoises don’t yah? I’d tell you to go off to salmonella but now a bird in the hand is a mute point.

    2. I was wondering that myself, Paul.

      Even if RIM and Skype and other commercial entities enable back doors into their products, couldn’t some freeware communication tool be used instead?

      Surely, somewhere in the world is a computer science major with sympathies towards Al-Queda.

  18. Repeating from earlier thread, I dont know which is worse:

    1. They dont understand how crypto works.

    2. They do understand how crypto works.

  19. I guess they haven’t heard of PGP encryption. Probably just as well.

  20. I guess I should read the previous comments before I post.

  21. I’m curious if this will lead to a international Internet police, or if governments will start looking for ways break up the World Wide Web. Every country will want the ability to do what Obama is asking.

    1. Every country will want the ability to do what Obama is asking.

      Saudi Arabia has already ordered a copy of whatever results from this legislation, sight unseen. Iran will just download a cracked version a few months later. Oh, and as usual, I bet the Chinese already have a version of the product that allows 10x as much oppression at 1/4th the operating cost.

    2. The UN is already trying to pry the root servers away from the US government, arguing that the Internet belongs to the entire world. Of course, the UN is for all intents and purposes a democracy of dictators, so you can bet the first thing they would do is start restricting speech on the net once they got their filthy blue-hat paws on the root servers.

      1. The nice thing is that they cant really take them away.

        Anyone could set up their own root servers, or a distributed set of servers and use there own DNS instead of the “official” one.

        1. I’ve only had some basic networking classes, but isn’t the Internet basically an agreement on how to set up hardware and software? No one person or organization actually controls it?? There is no ‘off’ switch.

          Aren’t attempts to inhibit information flow considered ‘damage’ the TCP/IP will attempt to route around?

          1. Actually, the internet is a series of toobs, you see, and…

          2. Sort of, but the “route around” thing is overblown. There are limits. One yahoo with a backhoe in Minnesota took down big chunks of the internet for a day that couldnt be routed around, as a 2nd route didnt exist.

            But, many of the protocols are just that, protocols. Your DNS server can override any url->IP mappings it wants, heck, you can do it on your machine. I do it all the time for testing prior to a DNS switch.

            Lets say is at and is at (The 3.* is internal GE, its supposed to be routable but GE isnt using it that way. They are using it as a 10.*).

            I, on my machine, will define as in order to test prior to making a DNS switch that switches production and testing.

      2. Of course. France would veto any addition of ‘neo-nazi’ websites. All information found ‘offensive’ to certain cultures would be blocked. China would veto Google.

        1. And the UN would probably agree.
          Freedom in the 21st century is about not upsetting people and deferring to authority.

  22. One can only hope that the deep pockets that are likely to be affected by this fight back hard instead of trying to negotiate “regulations” that give them some competitive advantage.

  23. I can avoid intercepts by having face to face conversations (assuming no eaves dropping. Are they going to require a fed be present at all conversations?

    1. Nah, they only have to recruit enough undercover agents so that you’re never sure if whom you’re talking to is a Fed.

      1. You can tell who the Fed is because he’s the one trying to get you to agree to commit a terrorist act.

  24. Sanchez is dead on on this one and I thought Greenwald was spot on too – not always on his wavelength but his piece today on this issue was great…

  25. I guess I’ll have to change my signature again:

    FBI CIA MI5 MAD KGB bomb nuke Saddam
    al Qaeda Marx NSA anthrax Mossad Chtulhu Secret Service Ghaddafi Assad RAF IRA

  26. North Korea Likes This.

  27. I bet you that His Majesty’s Government would have been delighted to have this capability during the American Revolution. They could have rounded up those pesky “minutemen” and arrested them before they had the chance to really be a nuisance if they could have read their correspondence.

    1. Hey Pat – did U see TJ laff so hard beer cam out his nose? LOL!

      C U at the tree tonite

    2. um the internet wasn’t created until al gore invented it in 1987. dumbass.

  28. This country needs to stop this attack on small business!!!!
    Marx would be proud of congress! Sarah Palin should get americans to stop Ted Kennedy and this attack on small business!!!!!!!

    1. People like you make me sad for the libertarian movement.

  29. I have the feeling that this is more about giving the domestic law enforcement some tools the NSA already use.

  30. Also, require homeowners (subject to strict penalties) to keep a house key under the doormat in case federal agents come calling with a warrant. Much more civilized than no-knock raids, don’t you think?

    1. Who needs a key when they have breaching rounds?

    2. Shouldn’t you be on the cop shooting unborn baby thread?

    3. Even better, forcibly install card readers, at homeowner’s expense, and the happy policemen get the equivalent of a skeleton key in card form.

  31. “investigators have been concerned for years that changing communications technology could damage their ability to conduct surveillance.”

    Also, those fucking sheephorseless carriages let suspects get away easier.

  32. Rest easy, what ever the government mandates, some 14 year old hacker will be able to undue with a couple of hours work.

  33. I just cannot wait when those ISP’s and smart-phone service providers who refuse to “play ball” get their service blacked out by the feds. Then the USA will be in league with such economic- and social-freedom heavyweights as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and India. Go Team America!!!

  34. his is a clear man TYF220GDH

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