Officials push law on wiretapping Gmail, Facebook, Blackberry and Skype

Law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, citing lapses in compliance with surveillance orders, are pushing to overhaul a federal law that requires phone and broadband carriers to ensure that their networks can be wiretapped, federal officials say.

By Charlie Savage |

An Obama administration task force that includes officials from the Justice and Commerce Departments, the F.B.I. and other agencies recently began working on draft legislation to strengthen and expand the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, a 1994 law that says telephone and broadband companies must design their services so that they can begin conducting surveillance of a target immediately after being presented with a court order.

There is not yet agreement over the details, according to officials familiar with the deliberations, but they said the administration intends to submit a package to Congress next year.

Albert Gidari Jr., a lawyer who represents telecommunications firms, said corporations were likely to object to increased government intervention in the design or launch of services. Such a change, he said, could have major repercussions for industry innovation, costs and competitiveness.

“The government’s answer is ‘don’t deploy the new services — wait until the government catches up, ’ ” Mr. Gidari said. “But that’s not how it works. Too many services develop too quickly, and there are just too many players in this now. ”

To bolster their case that telecom companies should face greater pressure to stay compliant, security agencies are citing two previously undisclosed episodes in which investigators were stymied from carrying out court-approved surveillance for weeks or even months because of technical problems with two major carriers.

The disclosure that the administration is seeking ways to increase the government’s leverage over carriers already subject to the 1994 law comes less than a month after The New York Times reported on a related part of the effort: a plan to bring Internet companies that enable communications — like Gmail, Facebook, Blackberry and Skype — under the law’s mandates for the first time, a demand that would require major changes to some services’ technical designs and business models.

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