The Obama administration is developing plans that would require all Internet-based communication services — such as encrypted BlackBerry e-mail, Facebook, and Skype — to be capable of complying with federal wiretap orders, according to a report published Monday.
National security officials and federal law enforcement argue their ability to eavesdrop on terror suspects is increasingly "going dark," The New York Times reported, as more communication takes place via Internet services, rather than by traditional telephone.
The bill, which the White House plans to deliver to Congress next year, would require communication service providers be technically capable of intercepting and decrypting messages, raising serious privacy concerns, the Times said.
The proposal has "huge implications" and poses a test to the "fundamental elements of the Internet revolution," vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, James Dempsey, told the Times.
"They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function," he was quoted as saying.
The American Civil Liberties Union also objected. Legislative Counsel Christopher Calabrese issued a written statement urging Congress to reject the wiretap proposal.
“Under the guise of a technical fix, the government looks to be taking one more step toward conducting easy dragnet collection of Americans’ most private communications," he said. "Mandating that all communications software be accessible to the government is a huge privacy invasion."
Officials contend, however, that without new regulations their ability to prevent attacks could be hindered.
"We're not talking expanding authority," FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni told the Times. "We're talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security."
Internet and phone networks are already required to have eavesdropping abilities thanks to a 1994 law called the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, but the mandate does not apply to communication service providers — like Research in Motion, maker of BlackBerry devices.
RIM has recently been working to resolve disputes with India, the United Arab Emirates and other countries to avert threats to ban BlackBerry services. The countries complained that BlackBerry e-mail encryption posed a national-security risk. India postponed a ban for at least two months after RIM agreed to give security officials "lawful access" to data.
"We've made it clear that we are respectful of government needs and fully cooperating to comply with lawful requirements on an industry standard basis, but we cannot compromise the security architecture of the BlackBerry enterprise solution," RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie said Thursday, reiterating the company's previous stance.
Balsillie said RIM "simply has no ability to read the encrypted information and that it has no master key or back door key to allow access."