By Petra Paulson
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has extended its sphere of influence by asking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to support a controversial proposal that would require Internet-based corporations, such as Microsoft, Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo, and Google to create backdoors for government surveillance. Government officials assert that the drastic shift from analog to digital communications systems has made it increasingly difficult to wiretap U.S. citizens suspected of illegal activity. The FBI claims that its newest proposal will make it easier to wiretap social-networking Web sites, VoIP providers, instant messaging clients, and e-mail services. The FBI's proposal would effectively change the provisions outlined in the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) that applies to telecommunication companies. In 2004, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) extended the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act to include broadband networks.
Privacy advocates have challenged the reasoning behind this wiretap-friendly expansion. Law enforcement agencies claim that the expansion will help maintain the status quo by making it easier to intercept all communications containing suspected illegal activities. In other words, the rapidly evolving digital age has impeded the quality of law enforcement investigations. The key issue behind this expansion lies in the ease of accessibility for law enforcement agencies to wiretap the communications of all U.S. citizens. Privacy advocates dispute these claims, citing that surveillance has actually gotten easier in the digital age. Theoretically, agents can access mobile phones, collect scores of electronic data, and track people's locations using built-in GPS devices. These surveillance technologies alone enable law enforcement to literally track the movement of suspected individuals. As a result, many wonder why law enforcement wants to extend its arm by capturing a few VoIP calls and instant messaging transcripts.
The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) would force Internet companies to comply with its standards. This would force Internet companies to spend millions of dollars on CALEA compliance. Consumers would have to pay for these conversions with a higher monthly charge, ultimately subsidizing the surveillance state. Privacy advocates believe that CALEA's expansion would push privacy-friendly technologies out of business, ultimately leaving consumers vulnerable to identity theft. In other words, CALEA limits the scope of innovation by restricting high-tech research and development to comply with its standards. For instance, VoIP systems would have never evolved under these proposed CALEA guidelines.
Gaming consoles, such as the Xbox 360, allow users to chat via an instant message interface. Privacy advocates believe that if the FBI gets its way, then it could very well push to have manufacturers rebuild its components to meet CALEA standards. CALEA means that innovators will have to confine their ideas to comply with surveillance protocol.