FBI, NSA Want Master Encryption Keys from Internet Companies
July 25, 2013 7:06 PM
The question of whether it's legal for them to ask for these SSL keys or not is unclear
The feds are trying to creep further into the personal lives of Web users by requesting master encryption keys from Internet companies.
According to a new report from
, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) have both tried to obtain master encryption keys as part of their
digital surveillance efforts
, but there's a huge question as to whether they have the legal authority to do so.
Master encryption keys are crucial to Web encryption. They put contents of Web communications into code that is tough to crack using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). If government agencies were to get their hands on these SSL keys, they could decode the content and peek into the lives of Internet users.
The NSA is also looking to get these SSL keys because it would allow for surveillance through its fiber taps, which are now heavily guarded by SSL.
SSL was originally put in place because of insecure and open Wi-Fi networks. Google adopted HTTPS (which appears in the browser to show that SSL is enabled -- back in 2010 for Gmail, and Microsoft did the same for Hotmail. Later in 2012, Facebook followed suit for its popular social network.
Now, these large Internet companies face the fear of government agencies trying to obtain the SSL keys and expose information on their users. Microsoft, Google and Facebook all said that they haven't given any SSL keys to the government, and agreed that they would fight against doing so.
Other larger companies like Apple, Verizon, AT&T, Yahoo, Comcast and AOL haven't said if they've been asked for or have given SSL keys to the feds.
But the larger companies fear that smaller Web establishments without deep pockets or a hefty legal department will give in to the government's requests for keys.
SSL has certainly hindered the government's spying abilities, which is why they're coming directly to the source for the keys. But if all else fails, the feds have other avenues of
getting what they need
. For instance, companies like Packet Forensics help government agencies import "legitimate" copies of SSL keys -- which could possibly be obtained through a court order -- for spying on users.
Speaking of a court order, it's not clear whether federal surveillance laws allow the government to ask for SSL keys -- even with subpoenas. Subpoenas call for gathering evidence related to an investigation, where SSL keys would seem to open up a treasure trove of data that may contain pieces of information relevant to an investigation, but likely most that are not.
"It's okay. The scenarios aren't that clear. But it's good looking. [Steve Jobs] does good design, and [the iPad] is absolutely a good example of that." -- Bill Gates on the Apple iPad
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