The Obama administration is pushing to make it easier for the government to tap into internet and e-mail communications. But the plan has already drawn condemnation from privacy groups and communications firms may be wary of its costs and scope.
Frustrated by sophisticated and often encrypted phone and e-mail technologies, U.S. officials say that law enforcement needs to improve its ability to eavesdrop on conversations involving terrorism, crimes or other public safety issues.
Critics worry the changes are an unnecessary invasion of privacy and would only make citizens and businesses more vulnerable to identity theft and espionage.
The new regulations that would be sent to Congress next year would affect American and foreign companies that provide communications services inside the U.S. It would require service providers to make the plain text of encrypted conversations — over the phone, computer or e-mail — readily available to law enforcement, according to federal officials and analysts.
The mandate would likely require companies to add backdoors or other changes to the systems that would allow a wiretap to capture an unscrambled version of a conversation.
"The way we communicate has changed dramatically since 1994, but telecommunications law has not kept up. This gap between reality and the law has created a significant national security and public safety problem," said Valerie E. Caproni, the FBI's General Counsel.
She said the changes would not expand law enforcement authority and would involve legally authorized intercepts on calls or e-mails sent by terrorists or other criminals. The changes would allow companies to respond quickly to wiretap requests from local, state and federal authorities.
Law enforcement is already able to monitor regular telephone conversations.
"In the old days, the technology was simple to wiretap," said cybersecurity expert James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "As technologies have gotten better and faster and bigger, it's harder and harder for law enforcement to intercept communications."
Lewis said law enforcement officials have long been pushing for the expanded access. He said the technology is available to make the changes and allow authorities to tap into conversations encrypted by communications companies as they move from one person to another.
Communications companies, he said, may have concerns about the costs of modifying their systems or software to allow the intercepts. The government may have to provide some funding aid.
Companies may also balk if the government tries to tell them how to alter their systems.
Wiretapping is vital for law enforcement agencies, said Lewis, because "it provides crucial evidence that wins a lot of their convictions. As technology changes, as the Internet changes, they have to keep up or they'll lose an important tool in their arsenal."
Civil rights and privacy groups were quick to condemn the plan, warning that the administration faces an uphill battle.
"This is a shortsighted and ill-conceived power grab by some in the administration," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The balance has swung radically toward enhanced law enforcement powers. For them to argue that it's still not enough is just unbelievable. It's breathtaking in its hubris."
He said that over the past 15 years — particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — the standards for warrants have been lowered. And he said law enforcement has many new technologies, ranging from biometric tracking to DNA databases, to enhance its information gathering.
Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that mandating that all communications software be accessible to the government is a "huge privacy invasion."
"Under the guise of a technical fix, the government looks to be taking one more step toward conducting easy dragnet collection of Americans' most private communications," Calabrese said. "This proposal will create even more security risks by mandating that our communications have a 'backdoor' for government use and will make our online interactions even more vulnerable."