As Salon noted last week, a Justice Department task force -- working on the FBI's bidding -- is preparing legislation that would allow the government to wiretap online communications with far greater ease. The plan would see tech giants -- like Facebook, or Google -- facing fines were they not to build in backdoors to their messaging systems, which would enable government surveillance. The New York Times now reports that President Obama is "on the verge" of backing this surveillance law overhaul, which has been decried by tech industry players and privacy advocates alike.
Albert Gidari Jr., who represents technology companies on law enforcement matters, told the Times, "We’ll look a lot more like China than America after this." Gidari argued, according to the Times, "that if the United States started imposing fines on foreign Internet firms, it would encourage other countries, some of which may be looking for political dissidents, to penalize American companies if they refused to turn over users’ information."
Others in opposition to the proposal argue that the built-in backdoors that will be mandated will also make Internet users more vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves. The federal authorities have long complained that current surveillance laws are out-of-date, failing to enable the easy surveillance of online messaging.
A central element of the F.B.I.’s 2010 proposal was to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act — a 1994 law that already requires phone and network carriers to build interception capabilities into their systems — so that it would also cover Internet-based services that allow people to converse. But the bureau has now largely moved away from that one-size-fits-all mandate.
Instead, the new proposal focuses on strengthening wiretap orders issued by judges. Currently, such orders instruct recipients to provide technical assistance to law enforcement agencies, leaving wiggle room for companies to say they tried but could not make the technology work. Under the new proposal, providers could be ordered to comply, and judges could impose fines if they did not. The shift in thinking toward the judicial fines was first reported by The Washington Post, and additional details were described to The New York Times by several officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Under the proposal, officials said, for a company to be eligible for the strictest deadlines and fines — starting at $25,000 a day — it must first have been put on notice that it needed surveillance capabilities, triggering a 30-day period to consult with the government on any technical problems.