The FBI Wants Tech Companies To Help Make Wiretapping Easier

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From the just-extended Patriot Act to warrantless wiretapping, in many ways it’s easier than ever for law enforcement agencies to engage in domestic snooping. And it isn’t limited to phones — the FBI can already access web-based email and things like Facebook messages. So what does the FBI mean when it says it needs better tools for getting wiretaps?

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee today, FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni cited two examples where FBI agents were unable to pursue investigations because an ISP and a social networking site didn’t have the technological capability to offer law enforcement the data they were legally entitled to collect.

The law that helps cops listen in on digital-age communications, known as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), was passed in 1994. Even though it was updated to include certain technologies, like VoIP telephone connections, it’s woefully lacking in other areas, said Caproni.

Caproni acknowledged that the FBI is already able to access “stored data” on things like social networks. The problem, she said, is that the FBI has a hard time collecting data going over apps, social networks and webmail in “real time.” That means “investigators will remain several steps behind” in their efforts to catch bad guys. While Caproni didn’t ask Congress to take legislative action right away, the agency appears to want tech companies to be required to build mechanisms in to their products that make it easier for the government to gather the data it wants. Traditional telephone companies and related technologies like VoIP networks are already required to build in these access points.

But while Caproni laid out these problems to lawmakers, she didn’t ask them for legislative action, at least not right now.

Companies like Google (NSDQ: GOOG), Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) and Facebook would be key to enabling these new types of wiretaps. But digital-media companies have largely removed themselves from the debate. Writing on his blog, privacy researcher Chris Soghoian speculates that the companies are trying to keep a low profile for now and save their political juice to weigh in on the “Do Not Track” privacy bills now on the table, which could limit behavioral advertising.

Privacy rights groups have published a “letter of concern” about the FBI’s desire to update the law, saying that applying CALEA to “edge” technologies like peer-to-peer networks could damage those technologies or render them non-functional.

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