Tuesday, April 30, 2013

FBI Wants Power to Fine Internet Chat Providers That Don't Comply With Real-Time Spy Orders

Ryan Gallagher at Slate reports:

Bad news for telecommunications companies: New details have emerged about the FBI’s efforts to upgrade its surveillance powers—and the feds’ latest idea is to heavily fine firms that don’t comply with eavesdropping requests.

Last month I reported that the bureau said it was having a hard time monitoring services like Gmail, Google Voice, and Dropbox in real time when attempting to spy on criminals. The FBI’s general counsel Andrew Weissmann revealed in a speech that a “top priority” for the bureau in 2013 was to reform surveillance laws in order to force email, cloud services, or online chat providers like Skype to provide a wiretap function. The 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act already allows the government to mandate Internet providers and phone companies to install surveillance equipment within their networks. But it doesn’t apply to third-party providers—like Google or Facebook—which has led the bureau to claim that its ability to monitor suspected criminals’ conversations is “going dark.”

Now, according to the Washington Post, the feds have prompted a government task force to draft a proposal to update CALEA and the 1968 Wiretap Act to put more pressure on companies that do not currently fall under the scope of their powers[...] This could involve, the Post reports, “a series of escalating fines, starting at tens of thousands of dollars, on firms that fail to comply with wiretap orders.” If a company fails to comply with an order in a set timeframe, it would “face an automatic judicial inquiry, which could lead to fines. After 90 days, fines that remain unpaid would double daily.”[...]

In the meantime, however, the FBI does have some options on the table if it wants to spy on Skype calls or get transcripts of Gchats in near real-time. The bureau has a sophisticated spy Trojan that can covertly infiltrate a computer to gather all kinds of data—taking snaps of a suspect through their webcam, recording passwords, and gathering logs of conversations, as a judge in Texas disclosed last week in an order denying the tool’s use.

Read the full report here.

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