The Obama administration is close to announcing its support for a law that would force Google, Facebook and other Internet communications companies to build back doors for government wiretaps, according to an article in the New York Times Wednesday.
Such a measure would allow intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI, to monitor a vast array of communications, including Facebook messages, chats, and email using services such as Gmail.
The move comes as the National Security Agency’s sprawling new data center in Utah prepares to come online in September of this year. The facility is rumored to store data on the scale of trillions of terabytes, meaning that it can easily house the contents of every personal computer in the world.
Under the terms of the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, known as CALEA, hardware used to facilitate Internet and voice communications—the networks through which data is transmitted—must have the technical means to allow the government to conduct wiretaps.
The spying capabilities created in the context of this earlier law made possible the massive illegal domestic spying programs conducted under the Bush administration, and tens of thousands of ongoing secret court-approved wiretaps conducted under Obama. Under Bush, reports emerged that the government was essentially given full access to transmission systems by many Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as AT&T.
US intelligence agencies were satisfied with these capabilities up until around 2010, when, in response to a series of security breaches, services such as Gmail and Facebook enabled encryption by default.
As a result of this move, communications using these services became inaccessible to conventional wiretapping, which relied on intercepting the (now encrypted) data traveling between users and routed by ISPs.
To offset the effects of encryption, the FBI has sought to force companies to create back doors for surveillance, with varying degrees of success. Following its purchase by Microsoft, Skype, the online chat and voice service, last year voluntarily reengineered its architecture to allow the US and other governments to monitor chat communications.
The FBI claims that, under current laws, Internet communications companies can effectively refuse to comply with a court-ordered wiretap by claiming that there is no practical way for them to allow the government to spy on their users’ communications.
The proposed law would force social networks and other communications companies to provide government access or face fines that, according to the Washington Post, would multiply exponentially and threaten companies with bankruptcy.