The Obama administration wants the country’s anti-terrorism agents to be able to covertly eavesdrop on Skype calls, intercept Internet chat programs and read encrypted messages like those available on BlackBerrys.
Broader and more intrusive intercepts of digital communications – matching the sweeping eavesdropping authority to listen in on old-fashioned telephone calls – is needed because savvy terrorists are opting for 21st-century social networking and leaving government agents in the dark, the administration says.
It’s not just al-Qaeda that’s turning to Facebook and using sophisticated encryption offered by – among others – Canada’s Research In Motion, makers of the ubiquitous BlackBerry favoured by business because communications are all-but-impossible to decode.
“Based on cases from the past year, homegrown extremists are more sophisticated, harder to detect, and better able to connect with other extremists,” Robert Mueller, the Federal Bureau of Investigation director acknowledged at a Congressional hearing earlier this month.
The Times Square bomber, for instance, may have been inept in choosing fireworks to build his bomb but he used impossible-to-crack, peer-to-peer, messaging that left the $40-billion U.S. intelligence community unaware of his plans.
“The Internet has expanded as a platform for spreading extremist propaganda, a tool for on-line recruiting and a medium for social networking with like-minded extremists,” Mr. Mueller said.
The plan stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge when he was running for president. Then he promised to “strengthen privacy protections for the digital age and harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy.”
The FBI has earmarked millions on a new program called Going Dark, designed to make sure the agency isn’t shut out of the digital cloud of instantaneous, global, communications.
The Obama administration is readying new legislation to send to Congress after the mid-term elections. It would require all communications providers – even those located outside the United States – to create readable versions of the encrypted messages that now offer users.
“They can promise strong encryption. They just need to figure out how they can provide us plain text,” Federal Bureau of Investigation general counsel Valerie Caproni told The New York Times, which first reported that the Obama administration was seeking sweeping new powers to intercept digital communications.
“Congress must reject the Obama administration’s proposal to make the Internet wiretap ready,” said Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. He said the Obama administration was “taking one more step toward conducting easy dragnet collection of Americans’ most private communications.”
Tension is building over the conflicting demands of government – usually claiming national security – to intercept communications and dig through digital archives and the commercial prerogatives of providers who want to promise their customers that messages they send are safe from prying eyes and ears.
Research In Motion, for instance, remains in the midst of a fight with several governments in the Middle East that are threatening to shut down the service next month unless it makes the keys available to decode encrypted communications.
The conflict between individual privacy rights and rapidly escalating government efforts to combat terrorism have repeated erupted into nasty political debates since the former Bush administration enacted sweeping powers in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
The Obama administration’s latest effort to add to add digital communications – whether voiceover Internet such as that offered by Skype or encrypted text and e-mail – doesn’t add to government powers, it insists.
“We’re not talking expanding authority,” Ms. 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.”
Anti-terrorism agents would still need to get a court order to intercept communications but all communications providers would be forced to build so-called “back doors” into their systems through which the government could gain access.