A set of questions from Senator Ron Wyden — directed at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — have finally received answers. The answers [PDF] were actually given to the Senate oversight committee in July but have just now been made public.
Zack Whittaker of ZDNet has taken a look at the answers the ODNI provided and found something that indicates the government can not only compel the creation of backdoors, but can do so without explicit approval from the FISA court.
The government made its remarks in July in response to questions posed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), but they were only made public this weekend.
The implication is that the government can use its legal authority to secretly ask a US-based company for technical assistance, such as building an encryption backdoor into a product, but can petition the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to compel the company if it refuses.
In its answers, the government said it has “not to date” needed to ask the FISC to issue an order to compel a company to backdoor or weaken its encryption.
The government would not say, however, if it’s ever asked a company to add an encryption backdoor.
The way this process works is the agency requesting the backdoor or other compelled assistance runs the request by the FISA court. This process does not ask the FISA court to approve the method used, nor does it provide the court with details on the assistance sought. All the FISC determines is whether or not compelled assistance is necessary.
The ODNI maintains it has never asked for compelled decryption or the installation of backdoors… at least not under this authority. If it has, there’d be little in the way of a paper trail to prove it. The FBI, as part of the Intelligence Community, appears to be more interested in securing the help of US courts — something that would prove far more useful in the long run, considering its domestic focus.
This information comes at a critical time. The surveillance wing of the government wants Section 702 (and related authorities) renewed at the end of this year — unaltered and with at least a half-decade before the next chance of reform. So far, its two Congressional oversight bodies have been compliant with the IC’s wishes. Serious reform efforts have been dumped by both House and Senate judiciary committees, leaving only those authored by longtime surveillance state cheerleaders in the running. With limited oversight and an easy way to route around FISA roadblocks, Section 702 reform is badly needed if we have any hope of the next decade being less filled with Fourth Amendment violations than the last one.