The Obama administration is readying a bill that would require network-based communications and services ranging from BlackBerry to Facebook to peer-to-peer networking sites to have the technology in place to comply with a federal wiretap order, the New York Times reported Monday.
The law also would give law-enforcement the authority to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages, according to the report.
The possible legislation once again raises the debate over how to balance the needs of law enforcement to intercept possible criminal activity with the privacy of people's Internet-based data and communications.
The push for passing such legislation is coming from the FBI, the law-enforcement authority for authorizing wiretaps, said Jim Dempsey, vice president of public policy for the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet policy group.
He said it's not clear whether the Obama administration has approved the move or if formal legislation is ready to go yet. "The issue is very real, though, and has been percolating at a conceptual level inside the administration," Dempsey said.
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said he could not confirm whether legislation will be introduced next year, but defended the agency's interest in such a bill against people who might worry about the privacy issues it would raise.
Bresson said that the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies merely want the same authority given to them by the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to extend to the Internet. The act updated existing government-surveillance legislation during the transition from copper-wire phone lines to digital networks and mobile devices.
"We're not looking to broaden our authority, we're looking to keep up with changes in technology so the court has the authority to do this when people are using those avenues to communicate, conspire for an attack or commit a crime," he said.
Federal lawmakers traditionally have been slow to update communications legislation passed before Internet use became ubiquitous.
In fact, in March a group of technology vendors including Microsoft and Google called for a rewrite of a decades-old law that also deals with law-enforcement's access to electronic communications and data. However, the group's activities are aimed more at protecting the rights those being investigated rather than the authority of those doing the investigating.
Calling themselves the Digital Due Process Coalition, the group wants to update the 1968 Electronic Communications Privacy Act to require the same legal due process for offline information in criminal investigations -- such as subpoenas and warrants -- to apply to online data.