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Lawmakers Seek Greater Online Wiretapping Powers

September 27, 2010

The Obama administration is looking to make it easier for law enforcement and national security officials to tap online communications, including emails and social networking transmissions, the New York Times reported on Monday.

The article, written by Times reporter Charlie Savage, claims that the officials want Congress “to require all services that enable communications–including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct ‘peer to peer’ messaging like Skype–to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.”

“The bill, which the Obama administration plans to submit to lawmakers next year, raises fresh questions about how to balance security needs with protecting privacy and fostering innovation,” Savage added. “And because security services around the world face the same problem, it could set an example that is copied globally.”

According to the Times, the federal law enforcement and national security personnel pushing for the bill are concerned that criminals and terrorists are opting to eschew telephone communication and are “going dark” by using online methods of communication that offer greater anonymity and are harder to trace. Those potentially secret communications are what have officials spooked.

“Law enforcement officials contend that imposing such a mandate is reasonable and necessary to prevent the erosion of their investigative powers,” Savage notes. “Investigators have been concerned for years that changing communications technology could damage their ability to conduct surveillance. In recent months, officials from the F.B.I., the Justice Department, the National Security Agency, the White House and other agencies have been meeting to develop a proposed solution.”

“There is not yet agreement on important elements, like how to word statutory language defining who counts as a communications service provider, according to several officials familiar with the deliberations,” he adds. “But they want it to apply broadly, including two companies that operate from servers abroad, like Research in Motion, the Canadian maker of BlackBerry devices.”

RIM’s encryption policies have already been the subject of similar governmental probes and legislative discussions in other nations, including India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Under the proposed U.S. plan, Savage says that the BlackBerry and devices like them would need to encrypt their messages in such a way that law enforcement could un-encrypt them. Furthermore, companies that do not operate in the U.S. would have to establish an American office to allow for intercepting, and that person-to-person communication would have to “redesign their service” to allow the government to intercept the communication when necessary.

“The White House plans to submit the proposed legislation to Congress next year,” the Associated Press (AP) reports.

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