US law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is lobbying for new laws that will force Facebook, Google, Skype and other social networking sites to give it easy access to people's communications.
The FBI wants the companies to be forced to build wiretapping facilities for the agency into their communications services and applications - and to punish them with heavy fines if they fail to comply.
Its demands are being considered by a government taskforce, which will produce proposals for updating a string of wiretap and surveillance laws to force internet companies to comply.
"The FBI and other government agencies are facing a potentially widening gap between our legal authority to intercept electronic communications pursuant to court order and our practical ability to actually intercept those communications," Valerie Caproni, general counsel at the FBI, told the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, in a statement.
She continued: "We confront, with increasing frequency, service providers who do not fully comply with court orders in a timely and efficient manner. Some providers cannot comply with court orders right away, but are able to do so after considerable effort and expense by the provider and the government. Other providers are never able to comply with the orders fully."
In her statement, Caproni complained that there is a widening gap between the FBI's legal authority to tap communications and its ability to practically do so because of technology, and is demanding new or updated laws to redress the balance.
She described this as a "going dark" problem, and said it is due to the FBI's inability to intercept many electronic communications in a timely fashion. "This gap poses a growing threat to public safety," she warned.
The FBI and other government agencies already have extensive wiretapping and interception powers, subject to judicial oversight, which were updated in 1994 with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to require "telecommunications carriers" to "develop and deploy intercept solutions in their networks to ensure that the government is able to intercept electronic communications when lawfully authorised".
However, while its legal interpretation has been extended to encompass internet service providers, it does not cover internet-based communications outside of ISPs' reach. "Also, experience with CALEA has shown that certain aspects of that law sometimes make it difficult for the government to execute orders even for providers that are covered by CALEA," said Caproni.
Wiretapping efforts have also been hampered by the end-to-end encryption deployed by companies such as Google and Facebook, deployed to secure their users' data from the threat of hackers.
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