US federal authorities say they can request a US tech company build surveillance backdoors into their products without any kind of court order, according to statements from July released this weekend, ZDNet reported.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Photo: AP
According to the documents, intelligence officials told members of the US Senate Intelligence Committee that there's no need for them to approach courts before requesting a tech company help wilfully - though they can always resort to obtaining a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order if the company refuses. The documents show officials testified they had never needed to obtain such an FISC order, though they declined to tell the committee whether they had "ever asked a company to add an encryption backdoor," per ZDNet. Other reporting has suggested the FISC has the power to authorise US government personnel to compel such technical assistance without even notifying the FISC of what exactly is required.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gives authorities additional powers to compel service providers to build backdoors into their products. Though Section 702 is set to expire at the end of the year, it remains vehemently supported by intelligence agencies, and the current Republican-controlled Congress is generally not the type of crowd to oppose them.
Even requiring a court order isn't even really a great solution on its own, as the FISC has generally granted the government broad surveillance powers in court rulings. In 2013, NPR reported the FISC was essentially a "rubber stamp", as almost all of its proceedings are secret and it almost never rejects government surveillance requests.
The most high-profile fight over encryption to date has involved Apple and the FBI - the latter of which has insisted it needs the power to compel tech companies to help them bypass security on devices such as terrorists' iPhones, despite the fact the backdoors could be exploited by anyone with knowledge of them. However, as ZDNet noted, during the FBI's failed court battle against Apple, it cited a different authority than Section 702.