The FBI is asking Internet companies not to oppose a controversial proposal that would require firms, including Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and Google, to build in backdoors for government surveillance.
The FBI is quietly pushing its plan to force surveillance backdoors on social networks, VoIP, and Web e-mail providers, and that the bureau is asking Internet companies not to oppose a law making those backdoors mandatory.
In meetings with industry representatives, the White House, and U.S. senators, senior FBI officials argue the dramatic shift in communication from the telephone system to the Internet has made it far more difficult for agents to wiretap Americans suspected of illegal activities, CNET has learned.
The FBI general counsel's office has drafted a proposed law that the bureau claims is the best solution: requiring that social-networking Web sites and providers of VoIP, instant messaging, and Web e-mail alter their code to ensure their products are wiretap-friendly.
FBI Director Robert Mueller is not asking companies to support the bureau's CALEA expansion, but instead is "asking what can go in it to minimize impacts," one participant in the discussions says. That included a scheduled trip this month to the West Coast -- which was subsequently postponed -- to meet with Internet companies' CEOs and top lawyers.
A further expansion of CALEA is unlikely to be applauded by tech companies, their customers, or privacy groups. Apple (which distributes iChat and FaceTime) is currently lobbying on the topic, according to disclosure documents filed with Congress two weeks ago. Microsoft (which owns Skype and Hotmail) says its lobbyists are following the topic because it's "an area of ongoing interest to us." Google, Yahoo, and Facebook declined to comment.
The FBI's legislation, which has been approved by the Department of Justice, is one component of what the bureau has internally called the "National Electronic Surveillance Strategy." Documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation show that since 2006, Going Dark has been a worry inside the bureau, which employed 107 full-time equivalent people on the project as of 2009, commissioned a RAND study, and sought extensive technical input from the bureau's secretive Operational Technology Division in Quantico, Va. The division boasts of developing the "latest and greatest investigative technologies to catch terrorists and criminals."
But the White House, perhaps less inclined than the bureau to initiate what would likely be a bruising privacy battle, has not sent the FBI's CALEA amendments to Capitol Hill, even though they were expected last year. (A representative for Sen. Patrick Leahy, head of the Judiciary committee and original author of CALEA, said today that "we have not seen any proposals from the administration.")