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Obama to Extend Digital Surveillance

The Obama administration will introduce legislation early next year mandating that all electronic communications providers (including BlackBerry and websites like Facebook) be capable of immediate compliance with wiretapping orders. According to the New York Times, the Federal government is looking to expand its wiretapping authority from telephone-only into all electronic communications, in an effort to keep up with the evolving modes of communication which criminals and terrorists can exploit. The move has many privacy rights activists worried (See Houston Chronicle). Fearing a further dissolution of privacy in the name of national security, some argue that the Federal Government already has too much power to peek into our private communications (See San Fancisco Chronicle). Previously, the USA PATRIOT Act greatly expanded wire-tapping authority, making “enhanced surveillance procedures” available to counter-terrorism officials.

The Act also allowed federal investigators to issue subpoenas to Internet Service Providers for a wide range of information. However, direct wiretapping capabilities remained reserved for phone lines, a result of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). A new law requiring direct access of all electronic communications by federal investigators will mark a decisive change from the restrictions imposed by ECPA. Not only would the new law require immediate wiretapping access, it would also require that service providers allow investigators to decrypt encrypted transmissions. Some opposed to the new law claim this requirement would weaken internet security across the board by creating holes for hackers, and may do more harm than good. Nevertheless, law enforcement officials are claiming that the new wiretap authority would not impede privacy rights, but would only preserve current investigatory measures in light of new digital communications technologies.

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