Obama may back wider wiretap use

  • Article by: Charlie Savage
  • New York Times
  • May 8, 2013 - 12:00 AM

– The Obama administration, resolving years of internal debate, is on the verge of backing an FBI plan for a sweeping overhaul of surveillance laws that would make it easier to wiretap people who communicate using the Internet rather than by traditional phone services, according to officials familiar with the deliberations.

FBI director Robert Mueller has argued that the bureau’s ability to carry out court-approved eavesdropping on suspects was “going dark” as communications technology evolved.

Since 2010 he has pushed for a legal mandate requiring companies such as Facebook and Google to build into their instant-messaging and other such systems a capacity to comply with wiretap orders. That proposal, however, bogged down amid concerns by other agencies about quashing Silicon Valley innovation.

While the FBI’s original proposal would have required Internet communications services to build in a wiretapping capacity, the revised one, which must now be reviewed by White House officials, focuses on fining companies that do not comply with a wiretap order.

The difference, officials say, means start-ups with few users would be freer to experiment without worrying about wiretapping issues unless they become popular enough to come to the Justice Department’s attention.

Still, the plan is likely to set off a debate over the future of the Internet if the White House submits it to Congress, according to lawyers for technology companies and advocates of Internet privacy and freedom.

“I think the FBI’s proposal would render Internet communications less secure and more vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves,” said Gregory Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“It would also mean that innovators who want to avoid new and expensive mandates will take their innovations abroad and develop them there, where there aren’t the same mandates.”

FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann said in a statement that the proposal was aimed only at preserving law enforcement officials’ long-standing ability to investigate suspected criminals, spies, and terrorists subject to a court’s permission.

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