Q: “I heard from a friend recently that the U.S. government is demanding back-door access to websites like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and others. Is this even legal? And will they spy on anyone they want or will they still need a court order?”
A: What you heard from your friend is correct: the FBI is requesting back-door access to social media sites, as well as web email providers, and VoIP companies like Skype. Is it legal? It looks like it, although some companies are pushing back.
Back in the old days, the government only had to worry about wiretapping telephone conversations if it wanted to find out what the bad guys were up to.
In this new digital age, however, criminals and terrorists (as well as the rest of us) use a variety of ways to communicate on the web: email, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and services like Skype.
In the face of all these dramatic new ways of communicating, the FBI is worried that it has a “going dark” problem, which means that they do not have the tools or technology to intercept communications from Americans they believe are committing illegal activities.
So what the government is proposing is that huge companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Microsoft allow them access to their software and websites so they can have unencumbered access to user information.
Basically, the FBI wants an “easy” way to wiretap some of our online communications.
How They Plan to Do It
Last year, the FBI met with representatives from major technology companies, as well as some senators and senior White House staff. They proposed a new law that would compel companies to give the FBI easy access. This would amend a 1994 law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) which currently only applies to phone companies, not Internet companies.
In addition, the FCC is considering whether or not to demand that products that allow video or voice over the Internet (such as Skype or Xbox Live) to include surveillance backdoors as well.
The problem is that this may create more problems than it solves.
Why You Should Care
First of all, as I detailed last month, Google and possibly other Internet companies still routinely turn over large amounts of user data to the government without a court order or any oversight at all. In 2012 alone, Google received over 21,000 requests for information on nearly 15,000 Google users from the U.S. government.
In addition, the FBI is collecting huge amount of email data on virtually everyone in the country, and can access this information at will. The government says it will only access website backdoors when it has a court order, but I think we should take that promise with a grain of salt.
Second, these backdoors might also open the door to hackers. When you build any vulnerability into a system, security issues increase significantly. A backdoor won’t stay secret for long, and a good hacker will figure out how to exploit it.
Third, some security experts say the backdoors are not even needed, and that the government currently has the tools they need to intercept voice communications, cellphones, and electronic data on the Internet.
Fourth, and finally, privacy advocates debate whether this backdoor technology will be abused to make it easier for the government to spy on us and perhaps even limit our free speech. In the hands of an oppressive government, such technology could monitor who visits a website.
So we should be very wary about these current attempts by the FBI to install these backdoors to popular websites. We could be creating a monster.