Justice, FBI Seek New Rules For Internet Wiretaps


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Technology companies should be required to ensure that law enforcement agencies can install wiretaps on Internet traffic and new generations of digital communications, the Justice Department says.

The push would effectively expand the scope of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, a 1994 law that requires the telecommunications industry to build into its products tools that U.S. investigators can use to eavesdrop on conversations with a court order.

Fearful that federal agents can't install wiretaps against criminals using the latest communications technologies, lawyers for the Justice Department, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration said their proposals "require immediate attention and resolution" by the Federal Communications Commission.

They called wiretaps "an invaluable and necessary tool for federal, state, and local law enforcement in their fight against criminals, terrorists, and spies."

"The ability of federal, state, and local law enforcement to carry out critical electronic surveillance is being compromised today," they wrote in legal papers filed with the FCC earlier this week. "Communications among surveillance targets are being lost.... These problems are real, not hypothetical."

The FCC agreed last month to hold proceedings on the issue to "address the scope of covered services, assign responsibility for compliance, and identify the wiretap capabilities required."

Critics said the government's proposal would have far-reaching impact on new communications technologies and could be enormously expensive for companies that need to add wiretap-capabilities to their products, such as push-to-talk cellular telephones and telephone service over Internet lines.

The Justice Department urged the FCC to declare that companies must pay for any such improvements themselves, although it said companies should be permitted to pass those expenses on to their customers.

Stewart Baker, a Washington telecommunications lawyer and former general counsel at the National Security Agency, complained that the government's proposal applies broadly to high-speed Internet service and puts limits on the introduction of new technology until it can be made wiretap-friendly.

Baker said the plan "seeks to erect a brand new and quite extensive regulatory program" that gives the FBI and telephone regulators a crucial role in the design of future communications technologies.

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