US security services plan to take on the internet ‘dark zone’

27 Sep 2010

US national security officials incensed at the ability of suspects to ‘go dark’ because they are using the internet more than ordinary telephones are planning to get new security regulations passed that will allow them to “wiretap” the internet.

Federal law agents and national security officials are hoping Congress will pass a bill that will enable all communications – from encrypted email via BlackBerry, tweets on Twitter, video and voice calls on Skype and personal messages on Facebook – to be compliant with wiretap orders.

This is not too dissimilar to the controversial Data Retention legislation passed in Europe that obliges operators and ISPs to hold on to data for two to three years. In Ireland, the Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009 will enable a member of An Garda Síochána not below the rank of chief superintendent to instruct an internet service provider (ISP) to hand over data as part of a criminal investigation.

According to an article in this morning’s New York Times, a bill will be submitted next year to lawmakers by the Obama administration that will allow federal law agents and national security officers to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.

Officials from the FBI and the National Security Agency have been concerned for years that changing communications technology is damaging their ability to conduct surveillance.

Existing wiretap technology allows agents to intercept signals on traditional telecoms networks but they hit a brick wall when it comes to encrypted messages.


However, the debate is set to get very controversial when it comes to services like encrypted emails on BlackBerry devices from Canadian manufacturer Research In Motion. The recent battles between RIM and countries like United Arab Emirates could be a sideshow or skirmish compared to the storm that could erupt if the US passes legislation to wiretap BlackBerry users.

The security officials have strong reasons for pushing for this legislation. An investigation into a drugs cartel was stymied because drug smugglers used peer-to-peer software.

The FBI has allocated US$9m to a “Going Dark” programme in its 2010 budget to boost its electronic surveillance capabilities.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years