FCC Chief Wants Expanded Snooping Powers After Paris Attacks

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Steve Ambrose Contributor
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The head of the U.S. agency that regulates telecommunications asked for more snooping abilities in the wake of the Paris terror attacks to help federal agencies fighting terror.

Federal Communications Commission commissioner Tom Wheeler requested greater wiretapping authority during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Tuesday in order to better assist law enforcement agencies, reported The Washington Post. (RELATED: Net Neutrality Trumping Privacy Undercuts The U.S.-EU Data Safe Harbor)

During an oversight hearing with the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, Republican Rep. Joe Barton shifted the conversation toward the recent terror attacks carried out by Islamic State militants in Paris.

He noted the proliferation of websites that now spread terrorist propaganda, and asked Wheeler what the FCC could do to shut down these sites and social media accounts that spread extremist messaging. Wheeler responded:

I’m not sure that our authority extends to picking and choosing amongst websites, but I do think there are specific things we can do. One of the issues here is the question of, ‘What is a lawful intercept?’, is something the Congress can define. You did it in CALEA. Things have moved on since then. … There’s probably opportunities to update the lawful intercept concept.

Wheeler was referring the the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). The Washington Post reported that the Act “provides for the ‘lawful intercept’ of a suspect’s telephone and online communications. It requires telecom companies and Internet providers, not to mention some online voice services, to build their networks in ways that grant authorities easier access to those communications.” (RELATED: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Finally Reveals His Net Neutrality Plan)

“I think this is also a question about the security of our networks,” Wheeler continued. “We need to have some kind of big data capability of determining what’s happening to our network out there because it’s not just people getting on the network, it’s perhaps people doing things to the network.” (RELATED: DC Posters Call FCC Chairman ‘Boot Licker,’ ‘Obama’s B*tch’ Ahead Of Internet Regulation Vote)

The comments are being interpreted as either far-reaching or relatively mild.

Harold Feld, the senior vice president at Public Knowledge (a consumer advocacy group), said “I think Wheeler was responding to a question that caught him off-guard. Wheeler did what any smart witness would do in his situation — throw the problem back to Congress without really answering the question.”

Chris Calabrese, a policy executive at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told The Washington Post that Wheeler’s comments are not benign statements, but have a truly expansive reach.

“If you say ‘we want to revisit that deal,’ you’re talking about building an intercept capacity into the Internet,” Calabrese said, “which is obviously a very different kettle of fish from what we had 20 years ago when we had a few big phone companies.”

A spokesman for the FCC told The Washington Post that currently, the commission has limited authority to ensure communication providers “are technically able to respond to judicially approved warrants for lawful intercepts.” But, they did note that if Congress decides to alter the limitations they “will respond.” (RELATED:  FCC Could Fine ABC’s ’20/20′ For F-Bomb [VIDEO])

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