Wiretapping the Web

A thought-provoking piece from Newsweek's Brian Braiker on the trend toward increased web surveillance:

[T]wo recent legal developments have raised further fears among Web privacy advocates in the United States. In one case, the Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 last week to prohibit businesses from offering broadband or Internet phone service unless they provide Uncle Sam with backdoors for wiretapping access. And in a separate decision last month, a federal appeals court decided that e-mail and other electronic communications are not protected under a strict reading of wiretap laws. Taken together, these decisions may make it both legally and technologically easier to wiretap Internet communications, some legal experts told NEWSWEEK. "All the trends are toward easier to tap," says Kevin Bankston, an attorney at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The FCC's plans to require Internet-based phone and broadband services to be engineered for easy wiretapping is a response to a request from the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies. The proposal would bring Internet-based phone providers in line with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which requires "telecommunications" carriers to make their networks wiretap-friendly. The FCC says the government must still go through all of the necessary legal steps to obtain the authority to wiretap; CALEA simply makes it technologically easier to do. "This will not have an effect on whether there is appropriate lawful authority — that remains the same," says FCC spokesman Julius Knapp. "All this really is addressing is whether the carrier is required to have the capability to provide the information that's covered by a court order."