US plans to scan web use of private firms

By Danny Palmer
22 Mar 2013 View Comments

The US government plans to reinforce its cybersecurity programme by expanding web monitoring, using a process which currently scans traffic going in and out of defence contractors and expanding it to private firms.

That means employees of large US organisations in which classified information could be disclosed, such as banks, utilities and transport providers, will have their internet use and emails scanned in the name of boosting America's resistance to cyberattacks.

Further reading

The call for private-sector scanning of the internet comes a month after President Barack Obama signed a cybersecurity executive order intended to boost the security of critical infrastructure.

The plans will see the US Department of Homeland Security pass secret data to a number of private telecoms firms, with the proper security clearances, which will then process the email and web traffic. The telecoms firms won't directly report on what they examine, instead using aggregate statistics to form a picture.

"That allows us to provide more sensitive information," said an unnamed department official. "We will provide the information to the security service providers that they need to perform this function."

The official said the US government is still consulting with the telecoms operators on the issue, and that it has no plans to extend this surveillance into the communications companies serving the general public.

However, the plans are likely to cause alarm among civil rights campaigners, especially as they include no clear definition as to what counts as "classified information".

Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Reuters that while the executive order did not weaken US privacy laws, there were concerns about the possibility of secret extra functions being built into the devices used to monitor communications.

"You have to wonder what else that box does," he said.

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