Feds want increased wiretap power; ACLU slams ‘power grab’

By The Associated Press

The federal government wants a law that would make it easier to conduct wiretaps — and civil liberties groups aren’t happy about it.

Obama administration officials have begun drafting legislation to strengthen a 1994 law requiring telecommunications companies to ensure that their systems can be wiretapped by the government, reports the New York Times. The feds say the new legislation is needed because in recent years, telecom companies have made upgrades and started new services that have thwarted surveillance efforts. Federal attorneys cite two cases in which the companies were trying to comply with court-approved wiretaps, but were delayed for weeks or months by technical problems.

But civil liberties groups argue that federal surveillance agents actually have more ambitious plans.

“This is just the latest time that the government has taken small seemingly technical issues and used them for massive power grabs,” Christopher Calabrese, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Upshot.

Calabrese argued that in seeking to reopen the 1994 law, the government isn’t motivated primarily by concern over delays caused by technical problems. Rather, he charged, the Obama administration hopes to “lever the law for larger changes.”

What larger changes? Calabrese cited last month’s news that law enforcement officials are seeking to require all online communications devices, in addition to phones, to include the capability to be wiretapped. In other words, the real goal, Calabrese argues, is to require “all communications to have a back door so the government can listen in.”

Building such a back door would entail a “massive re-architecting of the Internet,” Calabrese continued, creating “huge security vulnerabilities.”

The telecommunications firms, which have generally taken a cooperative approach to the government’s surveillance requests, are also signaling opposition. Telecom officials say that federal intrusion in the design or launch of new services could hamper innovation.

“The government’s answer is ‘don’t deploy the new services — wait until the government catches up,'” a lawyer for the firms told the Times. “But that’s not how it works. Too many services develop too quickly, and there are just too many players in this now.”

But the government argues that it’s just trying to keep from falling behind as technology advances. In 2008 and 2009, a law enforcement official told the Times, a “major” telecom was unable to comply with more than 100 court wiretap orders, thanks to technical problems, causing a surveillance interruption of eight months. The interception system, said the official, “works sporadically and typically fails when the carrier makes any upgrade to its network.”

The group working on the draft legislation includes officials from the Justice Department, the FBI and the Commerce Department, and intends to send a package to Congress next year.

(File photo of then-Rep. Richard Nixon, right, examining evidence from the Alger Hiss case: AP)