In an urgent, important blog post, computer scientist and security expert Ed Felten lays out the case against rules requiring manufacturers to put wiretapping backdoors in their communications tools. Since the early 1990s, manufacturers of telephone switching equipment have had to follow a US law called CALEA that says that phone switches have to have a deliberate back-door that cops can use to secretly listen in on phone calls without having to physically attach anything to them. This has already been a huge security problem — through much of the 1990s, AT&T’s CALEA controls went through a Solaris machine that was thoroughly compromised by hackers, meaning that criminals could listen in on any call; during the 2005/6 Olympic bid, spies used the CALEA backdoors on the Greek phone company’s switches to listen in on the highest levels of government.
But now, thanks to the widespread adoption of cryptographically secured messaging services, law enforcement is finding that its CALEA backdoors are of declining utility — it doesn’t matter if you can intercept someone else’s phone calls or network traffic if the data you’re captured is unbreakably scrambled. In response, the FBI has floated the idea of “CALEA II”: a mandate to put wiretapping capabilities in computers, phones, and software.