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U.S. panel said to push to bolster law on wiretapping

  |   April 29, 2013 at 6:15 AM
WASHINGTON, April 29 (UPI) -- A U.S. task force is readying a bill that would pressure Facebook and other Web firms to comply when law enforcement wants to wiretap online, officials say.

The plan, which the Obama administration hasn't signed off on, would exponentially fine companies that don't comply with wiretap orders, The Washington Post reported Monday.

The effort is driven by FBI concerns it can't tap online communications of terrorists and other criminals, as people increasingly communicate online instead of by telephone.

Federal officials typically back off when a company like Facebook or Google resists cooperating with federal law enforcement and national security officials, the Post said.

Officials say suspects' growing online activities represent what the FBI calls a "going dark" problem and this means critical evidence can be missed, the Post said -- citing current and former U.S. officials familiar with the effort by the task force that includes officials from the U.S. Justice and Commerce departments as well as the FBI and other agencies.

"The importance to us is pretty clear," FBI General Counsel Andrew Weissmann told the American Bar Association at a discussion last month on legal challenges posed by new technologies.

"We don't have the ability to go to court and say, 'We need a court order to effectuate the intercept.' Other countries have that. Most people assume that's what you're getting when you go to a court," he said.

Weissmann said the issue was the FBI's top legislative priority this year.

The task force began its work in 2010, The New York Times reported at the time. It would seek to strengthen and expand the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Times said.

The 1994 law says telephone and broadband companies must modify or design services so they have built-in surveillance capabilities allowing federal agencies to monitor cellphone, broadband, Internet and voice over IP communications immediately after being presented with a court order and in "real time."

Voice over IP is the type of Internet protocol Skype uses for its communications. Real time refers to the actual time something takes place.

Under the latest draft proposal, a company that doesn't comply with a wiretap order within a certain period would face an automatic judicial inquiry, which could lead to fines, the Post said. After 90 days, unpaid fines would double daily, the newspaper said.

The FBI and White House declined to comment.

The bill wouldn't dictate how the wiretap capability is built -- it would let companies figure out how they want to do that, provided they provide the information the government wants, the Post said.

Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which focuses on issues of privacy and security, called the proposal "a non-starter that would drive innovators overseas and cost American jobs."

"They might as well call it the Cyber Insecurity and Anti-Employment Act," he told the Post.

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