The Federal Bureau of Investigation is trying to get federal wiretapping laws changed to give it the power to force Internet providers to spy on you. The Bureau has been trying to force companies like Google and Facebook to build a spy capability into instant messaging and email services for years.
The FBI had originally tried to get Congress to change the law so that companies like Google would have been forced to give the Bureau the power to intercept and read any message sent through their services. That plan fell flat when companies like Facebook saw it as a threat to their profits. Instead, the Bureau wants a law that would give federal judges the authority to order service providers to turn messages over to law enforcement.
In other words, the Feds want the ability to plant wiretaps on online communications. This doesn’t mean that Uncle Sam isn’t spying on your online communications right now. What this effort really means is that Justice Department attorneys want to get the ability to use intercepted online messages as evidence in court. Currently only evidence collected with warrants can be used in court.
FBI Internet Power Grab Blocked
Under current law, emails or messages between terrorists intercepted by the Feds can’t be used as evidence in a court case. Under the new proposal, FBI agents could get a warrant to intercept the communications so they could be used as evidence.
The good news is that efforts to give the FBI a high degree of control over Internet services have been thwarted. The bad news is that the Feds want the ability to use your electronic communications against you in court. They also want to force companies to turn all of their technical information over to the Justice Department so the FBI would be able to adapt its wiretapping programs to keep up with changes or upgrades in technology.
Under the current proposals, Internet companies that don’t cooperate with the FBI would be fined. This is bad news, because it could give all federal law enforcement agencies, including the IRS, the ability to monitor your communications and the power to use those communications as evidence against you in court.
An example of this might be the IRS getting a warrant to subpoena your accountant’s emails and Facebook account to see if you’re trying to avoid paying taxes. Another might be the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms trying to find out who visited gun store Facebook pages.
Social Media Targeted
The FBI also wants the ability to easily hack into social media. This is probably aimed against radicals such as anarchists, who use social media to organize riots and demonstrations like those in Britain in 2011. British authorities have used information from Blackberry to prosecute persons involved in rioting.
Other targets include hacker gangs like the one that stole $45 million from ATMs all over the world. The gang organized and directed its activities by using text messages to tell operatives when to get cash. The FBI wants the ability to detect such activity and shut it down.
Another target is radical organizations, such as Anonymous, which use the Internet and social media to organize. In the future, any organization that conducts protests—pro-life groups, gun rights groups, peace activists, or environmentalists—might be targeted and infiltrated.
Any person that sends a text message from an area where a protest is taking place might be arrested or investigated. Worse, the FBI could get a warrant to monitor all the communications of the people that were in a specific area at a specific time. This could include protestors but anybody else that was in the area. A passenger on a bus that passes by the protest might send a text message to his girlfriend. The FBI could pick that up and start monitoring the man’s communications, because he was simply in the area.
Also targeted might be people that are at a protest where radicals are present. The FBI might monitor all the communications from a gun rights protest in order to detect Neo Nazis or radical anarchists that might be involved in the protest.
It’s easy to see how the powers that the FBI is asking for could be used for blanket monitoring of large numbers of people. The Department of Homeland Security would use incidents like the Boston bombing as a pretext for tapping into any social network.
The FBI Wants Your Pictures
Any pictures any person takes of a crime scene could be considered evidence, so the FBI could get a warrant to hack into the mobile devices of anybody that was in the area. Law enforcement would take this step, because there might be pictures of a suspect, license plate numbers, or pictures of the crime going down on cameras.
Anybody that was simply walking or driving by the crime scene and carrying a mobile device with a phone in it would be fair game for such a warrant. The FBI could even try to subpoena all the pictures at online photo sites like Flicker or the Facebook pages of anybody that was near a crime scene under the pretext that there might be pictures that could be used as evidence there.
In other words, the FBI wants to make every mobile device with a camera on it a tool of the surveillance state and claim the right to seize any digital picture that might be evidence. That’s a pretty frightening blanket power that could easily be abused.
Making Hackers’ Jobs Easier
Strangely enough, the FBI’s power grab might make it easier for criminals to hack into your digital devices and steal your data. The New York Times reported that the Bureau wanted to build back-door software into instant messaging and social media sites that would make it easier for agents to open up accounts and intercept data. The Bureau also wants to force all Internet companies to share encryption and security upgrades with it.
The back-door technology could easily be used by hackers to get into instant messaging and social media. The online wiretapping tools the FBI wants built into the Internet would be a hacker’s dream. A cyber predator that hacked the FBI and stole the wiretapping tools could hack into anybody’s email, Facebook, or instant messages.
Even if predators didn’t steal the technology, it could be abused by corrupt or unethical law enforcement officers. Remember the phone hacking scandal in England? Journalists working for The News of the World tabloid paid police officials and private detectives to hack into the voice mail of celebrities, average citizens, and even crime victims. It isn’t hard to imagine a tabloid journalist paying an FBI employee for the back door to Miley Cyrus’s instant messages.
Congress Wants into Your Mobile Device
If journalists aren’t bad enough, there are politicians. What’s to stop a congressman sitting on a committee that sets the FBI’s budget from demanding the backdoor to his opponent’s instant messages? Worse, Congress has subpoena powers; congressional committees could start subpoenaing instant messages and phone communications from all sorts of people to generate sensational testimony and attract media attention.
A congressional committee might try to get its hands on the communications of leaders of a group like the National Rifle Association in an effort to see who their political supporters and contributors are. Congress could then expose those people to the media as gun toting extremists.
The bottom line is it that federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents now consider any data or image on a mobile device potential evidence that they can seize or use against you. That means you need to be careful what data or images you have on such devices and where you use or carry such devices. Perhaps many of us should rethink the habit of carrying a smartphone with us everywhere we go. The price we pay for such connectivity could be turning into Big Brother’s eyes and ears.