The New York Times reported yesterday that the administration is preparing to back an FBI plan to legally mandate a capacity to comply with wiretap orders through the threat of fines for non-compliance with a wiretap order. This is based on fear that the FBI is "going dark" which is unwarranted and inaccurate. I agree with Gregory T. Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology who stated “I think the F.B.I.’s proposal would render Internet communications less secure and more vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves.”
Christopher Soghoian, a privacy researcher and activist, covered this topic in his Ph.D. Dissertation "The Spies We Trust: Third Party Service Providers and Law Enforcement Surveillance [pdf]." The following table from his research provides strong evidence that encryption has not been interfering with wiretapping and law enforcement access to content.
The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994 originally required “telecommunications carriers” to deploy intercept solutions in their networks but over the years the Federal Communications Commission has interpreted the statute to include Internet access and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services that are connected with the telephone network. Despite this broad reach, the FBI is concerned that there are still Internet-based communications that are not covered by CALEA which inhibits their communications access. To be clear, law enforcement is able to get court orders for access but they are worried that not all providers of services will be ready to provide them with what they are requesting.
The current standard for wiretap compliance requires companies to make a good faith effort to comply. Requiring all systems to be exposed to wiretaps is a great way of making systems more vulnerable to computer criminals. The proposed series of escalating fines outlined by the Washington Post is a solution in search of a problem. Cybersecurity is a real problem which the administration characterized as "one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.” Let's not make things even easier for criminals by mandating backdoors into every Internet service!