FBI wants to eavesdrop on Skype for evidence of federal crimes

Back when everyone got their phone service over physical phone lines, federal law enforcement had it easy. They essentially have "turnkey" access to phone company records, and there are no real barriers to getting a federal wiretapping warrant for a phone line. Increasingly, however, agents have been thwarted in their relentless quest for evidence of federal crimes by a simple change in technology. With cellphones, Internet chat and VoIP, the targets of federal investigations don't have to use traditional phone companies to discuss alleged crimes.

More important than the actual technology change is the fact that the providers of the phone connection are no longer Ma Bell, but an array of private companies large and small. And, unlike the heavily regulated landline companies, cellphone and Internet companies aren't under any obligation to fork over information to federal law enforcement, or let them listen in to customer phone calls.

Even if big Internet phone providers such as Skype or Google were willing to open their customer books to the feds, small startups spring up so fast that federal agencies can’t keep track of them all. Moreover, many of the communications they serve up are over encrypted networks -- and they might not even be able to decrypt individual calls.

The FBI has been seeking a change in the law that would give authorized law enforcement agents virtually unrestricted access to appropriate records, just as they have with landline operators. Tech companies and civil liberties groups, however, argue that giving federal agencies that level of access would be costly and burdensome, and would expose the companies themselves to security risks.

Nevertheless, a proposal to expand federal law enforcement access to these new technologies has just made it past Commerce Department objections and is currently on its way to the White House.

There should be no controversy, according to a former director of the NSA and CIA, over extending federal wiretapping "to the extent that this allows the FBI to continue its lawful interception capabilities.”

But there is controversy. Should private companies be compelled to provide warrantless access to their records? If they didn’t or couldn’t comply, could that itself be a federal crime? We’ll have to see what the Obama Administration decides. Regardless, however, the question must still be answered by Congress.

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, “Obama administration weighs options for expanding wiretap laws,” Joseph Menn and Mark Hosenball, May 9, 2013

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