Will Next-Gen Social Media Wiretapping Catch the Next Boston Bombers?

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The FBI's "top legislative priority" this year is a push to make tech companies comply with agency wiretapping standards in order to keep up with the changing way persons of interest — including, perhaps, the Boston bombing suspects and their family — communicate. The latest legislative proposals coming out of the FBI's Next Generation Cyber Initiative would threaten the likes of Facebook and Google with legal inquiries and fines if they don't allow access to real-time social media updates, reports the Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima.

Currently, social networks either don't have the technology to conduct extensive surveillance on their users, or they have been able to avoid cooperating with officials. So, no, Facebook is not spying on the wall posts of people on watch lists. But that's mostly because the government's ability to link up with major communications companies (under a 1994 law known as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) has not kept up with its escalation in secret wiretapping legalese (famously build under the Bush administration). Now the FBI would like to change that, because of what they call periods of "going dark," during which the intelligence community doesn't have the means to gather "valuable evidence" from Internet communications.

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Some tech leaders are already playing along: Skype, for example, changed its architecture, making it possible for law enforcement officials to access the credit card information and addresses of video-chatters under suspicion. But the FBI's latest push, stemming from an $86 million budget request, is to get more mainstream — and more social — Internet companies onboard. Google has seen a rise in government requests, but mostly for YouTube and defamation complaints. Its chatting and email software, on the other hand, has end-to-end encryption, making it more technically difficult for the feds to monitor on the fly without help from the inside. The new FBI legislative proposal, which the Obama administration has yet to sing off on, hopes fines of tens of thousands of dollars and up will pressure Google and other key communications companies to change their infrastructure when intelligence gathering needs to get personal — and fast.

To be sure, there are possibilities: As revealing as Twitter and Facebook-style profiles of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may have been — and however useless his newly discovered Instagram account may turn out — imagine what the FBI could have learned from Gchat or Facebook message communications. (Already a phone call between the Tsarnaev mother, Zubeidat, and one of the sons, wiretapped by Russian intelligence but not passed on to the FBI, is being reported as a possible intelligence failure in the Boston bombings.) Or imagine what U.S. intelligence officials could have done with Tamerlan Tsarnaev's YouTube favorites. In fact, if you look at what the Russians are already doing with that latter account, you have to look at the downsides, too.

While authorities claim they aren't expanding powers to encroach on civil liberties — the FBI is merely making sure the "existing authorities can be applied across the full range of communications technologies," a Justice Department official told the Post — that hasn't stopped privacy advocates from harping on the proposal. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has before said that requiring these "technical back doors," as they're called, is "ineffective, cause security vulnerabilities, and hurt American business." Whether they can help catch American terrorists — well, that's the question any new law would hinge upon.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.