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Feds Seek Sweeping Power to Hunt Bad Guys on the Web

Feds Seek Sweeping Power to Hunt Bad Guys on the Web

Federal law enforcement organizations are working to draw up legislation that would give them the ability to monitor communications carried out via Internet technologies like peer-to-peer messaging and encrypted email. Agencies would still need to obtain a warrant for any given operation, but such a law could make it easier to for them to plug into these channels once permission is granted.

By Richard Adhikari
09/27/10 11:29 AM PT

The White House is working with several federal law enforcement agencies to draft legislation that would make it possible to monitor all Internet communication services, including social networking sites, peer-to-peer messaging and encrypted email systems, according to a New York Times report.

"Society has changed the way we communicate, and what we're looking for is a technology fix to ensure we have the ability to do what we've always been able to do," FBI spokesperson Paul Bresson told TechNewsWorld. "There already is a law -- the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act -- that was passed in 1994."

The Obama administration will reportedly table a bill before Congress on expanding its powers to monitor communications sometime next year, the Times reported.

Every Step You Take

Investigators and security experts have been concerned that advances in communications technology are making things easier for the bad guys and that law enforcement isn't nimble enough to keep up.

For example, an investigation into a drug cartel earlier this year ran into problems because the smugglers communicated using peer-to-peer software, which is difficult to intercept, the New York Times reported.

Many governments have already ensured they can monitor secure messages. For example, India, China, Russia and several countries in the Middle East have forced Research In Motion, maker of BlackBerry smartphones, to give their intelligence agencies access to messages on the service's encrypted servers.

In the United States, officials from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Security Agency, other agencies, and the White House have reportedly been meeting in recent months to discuss ways to monitor communications despite technological advances, the Times reported.

They want to be able to get warrants to monitor peer-to-peer services such as Skype, encrypted messages such as those on BlackBerry servers, and social networking sites, among others.

"We're talking about a change in the law that captures other forms of communications that have come along in the past 10 or 15 years that previous laws didn't cover and couldn't have covered because they couldn't have seen them coming," the FBI's Bresson said.

"Law enforcement needs those laws or there will be a group for criminals and terrorists to exploit," he added.

But What About Facebook?

Perhaps communications on BlackBerry devices are encrypted, but those on Facebook sure aren't. You just have to ask someone to friend you if you want to read their postings on that or nearly any other social networking site.

Skype, a VoIP service that uses a peer-to-peer (P2P) network, perhaps offers a greater challenge. It's difficult to track communications on a P2P network because these networks don't have a central server or servers. That's one reason why criminals now use them.

In 2009, the European Union reportedly began looking into the possibility of wiretapping Skype because they believed criminals were using the service to prevent law enforcement from eavesdropping on their communications.

The Judicious Use of Power

Concern has always existed regarding the government's trustworthiness in being granted sweeping new powers of surveillance, the FBI's Bresson acknowledged. "But part of the job of law enforcement is to uphold the law and the constitution, and there are penalties for people who don't."

Just because the law is passed doesn't mean that law enforcement will use it, Bresson contended.

"It's not that we're going to monitor these services -- IP communications, P2P communications and so on," he pointed out. "But if the situation presents itself, say two terrorists or criminals are using these services to communicate, then law enforcement will go to a judge to get a warrant."

All You Gotta Do Is Believe

However, some civil liberties organizations don't buy Washington's argument that these sweeping new powers are required.

"Part of the debate on this issue will be about the evidence of a problem," Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, told TechNewsWorld.

"At least from what I saw, the evidence that there's a problem appears weak. We don't know what's the percentage of people who are potential terrorists who will use such communications, but it's likely tiny," Tien added.

Could these new monitoring capabilities be abused in the name of national security?

"Yes, absolutely," Tien declared.

How could the Obama administration, which pledged openness and an emphasis on privacy, do what seems to be the exact opposite of what it promised?

"In my experience, no administration has been great on privacy in the last 20 years or so," Tien said.

The Department of Homeland Security, which could be a major player in enforcing laws on monitoring communications, did not respond to requests for comment.

Liberty Calls

Civil liberties organizations are gearing up to fight the proposed bill.

"We definitely need to resist this new move, and will," Tien said.

"We're preparing a press release on this issue," Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington, D.C., offices, told TechNewsWorld.


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