April 30, 2013

Government Wants Tougher Penalties for Wiretap Resistance


The issue of government wiretapping on private systems is a divisive, hot-button issue for many. But most of the time, when a court order arrives for wiretapping on certain online systems, it's met with at least grudging cooperation. In some cases, however, it's met with resistance, and a government task force is eager to make resistance even more difficult with a recent push to give court orders even more teeth than they already have.

The task force in question is eager to put forth legislation that allows for steadily escalating fines for non-compliance with court orders as part of the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). Under the proposed legislation, fines would increase over the course of 90 days, and begin in the five-figure range. Failure to comply after 90 days would see the fines double daily until the requested compliance is reached.

Of course, the issue here is that, since CALEA was written in 1994, it really didn't conceive of things like social networking or online gaming sites, so CALEA doesn't really impact many companies like Google, Facebook, or Skype. Telecommunications companies, meanwhile, are required to have wiretap compatibility under CALEA. So major sources of communications go untouched by the law, something the government task force would like to see changed with its proposed legislation. The legislation also serves as a way to force such companies to develop ways to allow for the wiretapping to go on where needed.

Indeed, Microsoft has already been working on a technology that the government task force would no doubt approve of, the so-called “Legal Intercept” system that allows for monitoring and interception of Skype calls. Microsoft actually filed for a patent on Legal Intercept even before buying Skype. But when Google launched end-to-end encryption systems for both Gmail and text messages, that made the job of intercepting Gmail a much more difficult task, and one that the government disapproved of in no small amount. Other critics as well have expressed dissatisfaction with augmented wiretap capability, suggesting that foreign agents would have just as much ease performing wiretaps on these systems as well. A bolt-hole designed for government agents could be used about as readily by other governments, and that has some worried.

Naturally, the government is asserting that it doesn't want new powers, so much as it wants the ability to extend its current powers in new directions. Some would call that an issue of semantics, while others would agree that it's a valid use of authority. But considering that putting such capability in place would require development from the ground up with nothing but coercion in the form of rapidly-increasing fines for failure to comply to drive it, it almost operates like a tax on tech firms. More taxes commonly lead to job losses, and that's certainly not what's needed in an economy already well-described as limping.

Yet at the same time, it's not hard to see why the government would want access to widely-used channels that could be used by criminals, terrorists or worse. It's an extremely difficult issue, and the kind of issue that requires plenty more study in order to reach a conclusion that's sufficiently satisfactory to protect not only citizens' rights, but also citizens' safety.


Edited by Rory J. Thompson




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