US Gov't Considers New Internet Wiretap Rules

Dennis Faas's picture

The United States government is said to be considering plans that would force all communications firms to make their systems available for "wiretapping" in the event of a court order.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) lawyer says the idea would not mean expanding the ability of law enforcement and security officials to demand access to data through the court system.

Instead, the changes would deal with cases where court orders are effectively meaningless because the communications firms concerned are unable to hand over the relevant data, either because it can't be intercepted or it is in an encrypted form that can't be unlocked by anyone but the sender and recipient.

Issue Could Become International Incident

The issue has caused problems for Canadian firm Research In Motion (RIM), makers of BlackBerry smartphones, in several countries in the Middle East and Asia. If RIM came under the new US rules, which would appear to be the case, the public and media reaction would be interesting given that many accounts have portrayed the issue as one of government snooping. (Source:

In theory, all broadband providers already come under a 1994 law that says they must have intercept capabilities. In practice, it appears many only put such systems in place when they receive a court order for a specific case. (Source:

Careful Legislative Drafting Required

While the proposals appear simple, they are likely to have some major stumbling blocks. One is the non-geographic nature of the Internet. It's possible the new rules could mean foreign firms doing business in the US would have to put the relevant systems in place, but it's not clear if or how the rules could affect those companies that have no physical presence in the country.

Another concern is that by modifying systems to allow officials easy access where needed, communications firms could make themselves open to attack from hackers.

Any legislation would also have to be very carefully worded to avoid people finding loopholes, but without the rules having unintended consequences. One particular issue is whether the rules would only affect companies offering specific services, or if it applied to software created and used by individuals, such as peer-to-peer filesharing.

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