Google, Facebook and Twitter silent about FBI push to wiretap online

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The FBI is quietly working to require Google, Facebook, Twitter and other online giants to make it easier for federal law enforcement to wiretap their websites. And major tech companies have been silent on the issue so far.

As more communication moves from telephone wires to the online space, the FBI has growing concerns about the imminent prospect of not being able to surveil American citizens. So the agency has been working quietly behind the scenes to amend a federal wiretapping law, the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, to legalize and facilitate monitoring Americans on social networks, through web-based email, and in Voice over IP (VoIP) communications, CNET reported Friday.

The move is the latest by federal law enforcement agencies and regulators to update eavesdropping laws in a bid to keep current with changing communications technology. The most recent update to the law took place in 2004 when the FCC amended it to force broadband Internet providers into the surveillance framework that already controlled telephone companies.

According to CNET, the Justice Department has already approved the FBI’s proposal to amend the law, and the FCC is preparing for regulatory action. Services like Skype, Google Hangout and Microsoft’s Xbox Live would all be affected as well.

The U.S. government is, however, a house divided against itself on Internet freedom issues, as even federal agencies are looking for more ways to spy on one another.

Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee proposed an amendment to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which ultimately failed, that would have enabled the Department of Homeland Security to monitor online communications of Congress and the Supreme Court. That controversial bill had already concerned civil and digital liberties groups over potential invasions of privacy involved with private sector companies sharing cyber threat information with the government.

Governments worldwide, wary of the disruptive toll online communications technology has taken on elections, continue their campaigns to rein in the Internet. Many have increased surveillance efforts, while others have created state-approved and state-monitored social networks.

In 2010, Iran purchased a sophisticated digital surveillance system from the Chinese. Iran denies recent reports it is preparing to close off citizens from the global Internet, despite reports of its citizens’ increased activity at Internet cafes.

Having learned its lessons from the so-called 2009 Twitter Revolution, when dissidents and opponents of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory protested in the streets and broadcast civil unrest live, Iran initiated new Internet surveillance tactics at the beginning of 2012.

In China, citizens are encouraged to use state approved social networks instead of those created by U.S. technology companies. The Arab Spring, catalyzed by online social networks, also served as a warning to regimes in both Iran and China.

In December, the U.N. will vote to renegotiate a treaty that would regulate the Internet under the international jurisdiction of the U.N. — for cybersecurity reasons. The development is favored by Russia, China and a coalition of developing nations, according to FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.

In the U.S., the coordination enabled by online social networks has also enabled both tea partiers and Occupy protesters to disrupt and circumvent traditional political processes.

A New York state court has already ordered Twitter to hand over user data associated with an Occupy protestor. Twitter, however, challenged the order, telling authorities that users own the content published to its site and are entitled under the law to challenge demands for that content.

The American Civil Liberties Union has applauded Twitter’s line in the sand. “Law enforcement agencies — both the federal government and state and city entities — are becoming increasingly aggressive in their attempts to obtain information about what people are doing on the Internet,” the ACLU said.

“If Internet users cannot protect their own constitutional rights, the only hope is that Internet companies do so.”

Google and Twitter did not respond to TheDC’s requests for comment. Facebook declined to comment.

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