While lawmakers fret over whether China is building surveillance "backdoors" into communications networks, the United States government wants more hard-wired access of its own.
For a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller submitted written testimony in which he renewed calls for American companies to make sure their systems can be easily monitored by law enforcement.
“Many communications providers are not required to build or maintain intercept capabilities in their ever-changing networks,” he wrote in the testimony. Mueller did not appear before the committee in person. “Because of this gap between technology and the law, law enforcement is increasingly unable to access the information it needs to protect public safety and the evidence it needs to bring criminals to justice.”
Law enforcement officials have called for things like social networks, e-mail systems, and online voice-communication services such as Skype to include prepared systems for police to use for surveillance.
“The increasingly mobile, complex, and varied nature of communication has created a growing challenge to our ability to conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance of criminals and terrorists,” Mueller said.
Such calls come at the same time that lawmakers are investigating whether Chinese telecommunications companies are working with the Chinese government to provide electronic backdoors for spying on American networks. Even if companies such as Huawei and ZTE aren’t actively working with spies, members of the House Intelligence Committee argued at a hearing last week, the Chinese government could still order those companies to hand over private information.
“Under Chinese law, ZTE and Huawei would likely be required to cooperate with any request by the Chinese government to use their systems or access for malicious purposes,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said at that hearing.
Officials have reasons to be concerned about potential threats posed by Chinese technology: Security researchers have questioned the security of Huawei and ZTE devices including Internet routers and mobile phones, and U.S. intelligence agencies say hackers in China steal a vast amount of information from American networks.
But the idea that the Chinese government could force otherwise innocent companies to hand over information is not foreign to American companies, or American officials. Google, for example, reported that government agencies in the U.S. asked for data on its users 12,271 times in 2011, up from 8,888 times in 2010.
The FBI insists it is concerned only about its ability to execute lawful warrants, and police work is a far cry from the "massive and sustained intelligence effort" that Rogers sees coming from China. Mueller said that protecting privacy and civil liberties is an important part of the agency’s work. “I emphasize that it is not enough to catch the criminal; we must do so while upholding his civil rights,” he wrote.
But any built-in "intercept capabilities," even if used for lawful surveillance, pose a range of problem: Hackers could take advantage of backdoors to steal information or cause havoc, and privacy advocates say such a move could undermine basic privacy and civil liberties.
“The heart of the issue is a growing attitude among law enforcement that there ought to be a presumption that citizens’ communications be susceptible to eavesdropping,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jay Stanley wrote earlier this year. “There is no reason for such a presumption. If the government has a warrant and happens to have a means of eavesdropping, that is one thing. But to rearrange the world to guarantee eavesdropping is something else entirely.”