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Police Push For More Access To E-Communications


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The FBI and local law enforcement officials say the rapid development of new technology is hurting their ability to investigate and solve crimes. So they're asking the White House and the Congress to change the law to make it easier to get their hands on electronic conversations.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on the start of what could be a long legislative fight.

CARRIE JOHNSON: You know those popular messaging tools like BlackBerry, Skype and Facebook? Law enforcement says that criminals are using them to keep in touch, too.

Peter Modaferri is chief of detectives in the Rockland County District Attorney's office in New York. He worries that new technology is leaving police in the dark.

Mr. PETER MODAFERRI (Chief of Detectives, Rockland County District Attorney's Office): As technology changed, and we weren't able to keep up with it or are limited in how we can keep up with it, we're losing our ability to see the evidence that we need to see.

JOHNSON: Here's the problem: The 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which governs how authorities deal with telephone companies and Internet service providers, doesn't address the government's ability to get messages on newer social networking sites or from foreign companies that market devices such as Blackberry and services such as Skype. Here's Modaferri.

Mr. MODAFERRI: The 21st-century law enforcement officer or prosecutor has to look to the digital world for electronic evidence.

JOHNSON: Oftentimes, the FBI says, companies want to comply with law enforcement requests, but they don't have an easy way to unscramble messages and turn them over right away. So the FBI has to send in its own team to do just that, which eats up more time and government resources in sensitive cases.

Jamil Jaffer worked at the Justice Department's national security division in the Bush administration.

Mr. JAMIL JAFFER: The spectrum of threats, both from cyber criminals, child predators on the Internet and terrorists is only increasing. And so everybody needs to think very carefully about the increasing threat spectrum when considering how to change the law.

JOHNSON: The proposal is in the early stages. It's being discussed at the White House, the Justice Department and other government agencies. But it's already provoking a lot of conversation among privacy advocates.

Jim Dempsey works at the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet privacy group. He says the FBI's already swimming in data, and now it wants to push the edges into new technologies.

Mr. JIM DEMPSEY (Center for Democracy and Technology): This really has very serious implications for privacy and for our innovative edge. And it also has implications for security because if you build vulnerabilities into these technologies, it's not going to be long before the hackers find a way to exploit them.

JOHNSON: So far, the details of the proposal are sketchy. The FBI says the plan would only cover investigations where they got a subpoena or a search warrant approved by a judge. And they say they don't want any sweeping new authority. Dempsey disagrees.

Mr. DEMPSEY: They want clearly new authority. That's why they're talking about legislation. They're talking about the authority, in essence, to control the design of new services.

JOHNSON: Jaffer, the Bush Justice Department official, says this is only the start of a conversation about helping the law keep up with technology.

Mr. JAFFER: Congress has an important role to play here in thinking about how to balance privacy on one hand and security and safety of its citizens on the other.

JOHNSON: The last time Congress waded into these issues, it took years for new legislation. Police say they're hoping they don't have to wait so long this time.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.