The Obama administration, at the urging of the FBI, is close to supporting a comprehensive overhaul of surveillance laws that would allow authorities to more easily wiretap people who communicate over the Internet rather than using conventional phone services, officials familiar with the discussions tell the New York Times.
The FBI has worried that the rapid evolution of communications technology has crippled the government's ability to execute court-approved eavesdropping, arguing that the rise of instant messaging services on websites like Facebook and Google, along with the proliferation of Internet-based phone services like Skype, allows suspects to communicate off the radar too easily.
FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann, according to the New York Times, was quick to note in a statement that the updated policies would not "create any new legal surveillance authority."
"This always requires a court order," he said of wiretapping, explaining that the overhaul would only "update the law given means of modern communications."
An earlier proposal would have required companies that offer Internet-based communication to build a wiretapping capacity into their services, but a revised proposal would simply levy fines on companies that do not comply with wiretap orders, the Times reports.
Despite the care taken to frame the proposed update as a translation of current surveillance authority into a modern technological environment, rather than an expansion of that authority, the changes under consideration are already drawing fire from technology companies and privacy advocates.
"I think the FBI's proposal would render Internet communications less secure and more vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves," Gregory T. Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology told the New York Times. "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."
The updated policy would also require foreign-based companies that operate in the United States to submit to any wiretap orders issued by courts, a move that has sparked concerns about reciprocity, with some worrying that other countries might penalize American companies if they refused to turn over similar information.
"We'll look a lot more like China than America after this," Albert Girardi Jr., a lawyer who represents technology companies in law enforcement cases, told the New York Times.