FBI asks for broad expansion of wiretapping laws

March 14, 2004

As I predicted, the FBI has asked for new laws to facilitate broad snooping at broadband internet service provider facilities. The first question is what will this mean for end-to-end encryption. The FBI wants to force Vonage, 8×8, AT&T, and other broadband telephone providers to enable easy wiretapping, but what about pure P2P systems like Skype (and even peer-to-peer SIP)? How will they force end-users to provide easy wiretapping of themselves? When will the government outlaw encryption, so that only the outlaws will have encryption?

From FBI adds to wiretap wish list:

Baker [who represents Internet providers as a partner at law firm Steptoe & Johnson] agrees that the FBI’s proposal means that IP-based services such as chat programs and videoconferencing “that are ‘switched’ in any fashion would be treated as telephony.” If the FCC agrees, Baker said, “you would have to vet your designs with law enforcement before providing your service. There will be a queue. There will be politics involved. It would completely change the way services are introduced on the Internet.”

If the FBI’s request is enacted, it will be very expensive. And, more importantly, my argument is that it doesn’t really help solve the real problem either. Why aren’t the existing laws enough? What’s wrong with getting a warrant and going to a particular service provider and getting the data they need? In fact, they already have greatly expanded wiretapping powers as part of the USA Patriot Act so they don’t even need court approval in many situations as things are now.

So to me, it looks like a lot of money wasted for no practical benefit. It will have little effect on real criminals since they can just use encryption and they will be the only ones using encryption if encryption is made illegal.

One potential positive side-effect of this kind of regulation is to push more functionality to the edge. If service providers cannot introduce new products to fill needs for users due to bureaucratic governmental red-tape, users will buy edge-devices to fill those needs (as they did for home routers).

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