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Obama, FBI may shift focus to Big Brothering the Internet

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AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

President Obama and his administration are fond of wiretaps no matter how they may adversely affect civil liberties and now it looks like the White House will back an FBI plan to overhaul its wiretapping approaching, shifting attention from phones to the Information Superhighway. From the New York Times:

The F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, has argued that the bureau's ability to carry out court-approved eavesdropping on suspects is "going dark" as communications technology evolves, and since 2010 has pushed for a legal mandate requiring companies like Facebook and Google to build into their instant-messaging and other such systems a capacity to comply with wiretap orders. That proposal, however, bogged down amid concerns by other agencies, like the Commerce Department, about quashing Silicon Valley innovation.

While the F.B.I.'s original proposal would have required Internet communications services to each build in a wiretapping capacity, the revised one, which must now be reviewed by the White House, focuses on fining companies that do not comply with wiretap orders. The difference, officials say, means that start-ups with a small number of users would have fewer worries about wiretapping issues unless the companies became popular enough to come to the Justice Department's attention.

The ACLU isn't exactly happy about what it claims is the FBI's ability to access electronic messages by not stepping in a big old pile of Fourth Amendment. One staffer told CNET earlier this week, "We really can't have this patchwork system anymore, where agencies get to decide on an ad hoc basis how privacy-protective they're going to be." The CNET article also lays out the reversal made by the IRS on a similar matter and how it only applies to email but not things like Google IM chats and Facebook.

Obama's complicated relationship with wiretaps began in 2010 when he signed an extension to three Patriot Act sections on wiretapping that he had previously claimed he would not do without significant reform. His extension did nothing to change the original laws. Then Obama reupped the same sections again for a four-year duration in 2011, yet again without changes. Not that Obama was alone in this: Congress happily obliged him both times. And the Dept. of Justice claimed in 2011 that it had implemented some of the suggestions for oversight originally suggested by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D, VT) (though it's debatable how much oversight these changes offer).

Either way, just know that the FBI could soon (if it doesn't already) have full access to your chats and Twitter DMs meaning they'll soon know all those nasty things you said about your coworker to that other coworker who you don't totally trust anyway. So proceed with caution.

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