Big Brother wants to surf the Net with you

Obama administration seeks to expand wiretapping capabilities to online electronic communications

The Obama administration is poised to ask for new Internet regulations that could potentially open any and all electronic communication to scrutiny.

The proposed changes pertain to the technological capabilities of online communications providers.

"Essentially, 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," according to a New York Times report. "The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages."

James Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, expressed serious reservations about the plan. In earlier testimony regarding the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Dempsey told Congress that technology is outpacing legal protectons that seek to balance the individual's right to privacy, the government's need for tools to conduct investigations, and the interest of service providers in clarity and customer trust.

"The personal and economic benefits of technological development should not come at the price of privacy," he said in that testimony. "In the absence of judicial protections, it is time for Congress to respond, as it has in the past, to afford adequate privacy protections, while preserving law enforcement tools and providing clarity to service providers."

Regarding the administration's planned legislation, Dempsey told the Times: "They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function.”

An FBI spokeswoman said the effort is aimed at providing tools for interceptions of communications that are already legal under the current law. “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," the spokeswoman said.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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