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White House, FBI Seek Legislation to Expedite Online Wiretapping

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As part of their tireless struggle to prevent terrorist attacks and protect U.S. citizens, federal law enforcement officials are now pushing for new legislation to enhance their online surveillance capabilities. The bill, which the Obama administration plans to submit for Congressional deliberation next year, would require communications services like Facebook, BlackBerry and Skype to be capable of immediately intercepting and unscrambling encrypted messages sent across their respective networks, in the event that federal authorities serve them with a wiretap order.

Usually, federal investigators rely on network switches to instantly intercept any messages deemed critical to national security. When senders use a service to encrypt data sent across networks, however, the government must first serve an order to the communication service in question before retrieving pertinent messages.

Although some networks already have interception capabilities in place, others often wait until receiving a wiretap order before developing them, thus delaying criminal investigations, and racking up federal expenses. The proposed bill, authorities argue, would help streamline both costs and investigations, without jeopardizing civil rights. "We're talking about lawfully authorized intercepts," FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni tells the New York Times. "We're not talking expanding authority. We're talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security."

Others, however, have reservations about any legal mandate that would alter the fundamentally decentralized structure upon which online innovation thrives. "They are really asking for the authority to redesign services that take advantage of the unique, and now pervasive, architecture of the Internet," says James X. Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function."

Even if the bill does get passed, though, it may not guarantee full compliance, or full safety. It remains to be seen, for example, how the law would apply to foreign services that do no business in the U.S., or to volunteer-developed 'freeware' systems. Federally mandated surveillance infrastructure, moreover, could also be exploited by hackers, as the Greek cell phone system was in 2005. "I think it's a disaster waiting to happen," says Columbia professor Steven M. Bellovin. "If they start building in all these back doors, they will be exploited."

Tags: blackberry, facebook, fbi, obama, skype, white house, WhiteHouse, wiretap, wiretapping