His timing isn’t so great, but FBI Director Robert Mueller told lawmakers last week that Federal agencies must be given expanded powers of surveillance with regard to Americans’ electronic communications for the government to protect the Nation against possible terror attacks in the future.
Despite lawmaker skepticism of the Constitutionality of the Federal government’s surveillance efforts and growing public concern, Mueller contends that the Internet and electronic communications should be subject to increased government scrutiny because criminals can use them to thwart court-ordered wiretaps.
“The rapid pace of advances in mobile and other communication technologies continues to present a significant challenge for conducting court-approved electronic surveillance of criminals and terrorists,” Mueller said.
“Because of this gap, law enforcement is increasingly unable to gain timely access to the information to which it is lawfully authorized and that it needs to protect public safety, bring criminals to justice and keep America safe,” he added.
Federal agencies were pushing for increased power to spy on Americans’ electronic communications before news of the National Security Agency’s policy of widespread collection of phone records broke. Last month, FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann told a gathering of the American Bar Association that government investigators faced a “going dark” problem — asserting that the rise in popularity of online chat services, video communications and cloud-based document services are making it difficult for the government to spy on Americans in real time.
Currently, the government can require Internet providers and Internet companies to install surveillance equipment, pursuant to the 1994 Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). Alleging that criminals are increasingly taking to Skype, Google Voice, Dropbox and even chat functions on popular online games to communicate, the Feds are lobbying for the power to conduct real-time surveillance on those services.
Basically, the Feds want to assign any electronic communications activity the same diminished threshold for expectation of privacy as an audible, private conversation in a busy public square.
At present, CALEA can be used only to make Internet and phone providers build surveillance into their networks. And a separate provision granted in the “Wiretap Act” can be used by authorities to request “technical assistance” in snooping through Americans’ emails and chat communications. But it simply isn’t enough, according to Fed officials. They contend that government investigators essentially need the ability to compel Internet and electronic communications companies to effectuate wiretaps on customers in the name of government surveillance.
Bottom line: Even as Americans are up in arms over the idea that Federal officials have access to a complete list of private phone records, the Feds continue to double down on efforts to spy on all other forms of electronic communication.