The FBI's reported new plan to read your emails

A proposed change to surveillance laws would empower the government to wiretap electronic communications

Be careful what you type.
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The White House is "on the verge" of approving a drastic overhaul of the nation's wiretapping laws that would give the government more power to obtain personal internet communications, according to The New York Times' Charlie Savage.

Citing officials close to the discussions, Savage reports the plan, a brainchild of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would allow courts to impose stiff fines on internet communications providers who refuse to comply with federal search orders. The FBI, which has sought similar changes for at least the past three years, says it must update the nation's surveillance laws to keep pace with the rapidly evolving world of digital communications.

Back in 2010, the FBI considered a plan that would have forced companies with internet messaging capabilities, like Skype and Facebook, to revamp their services so they could easily turn over users' communications histories — including encrypted messages — to the government. While telecommunications companies, like AT&T, are already required by law to have such systems in place, the proposed change was intended to bring that decades-old law into the digital age.

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But now, the FBI is pursuing a different strategy.

From the Times:

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. [New York Times]

The proposal would allow judges to impose escalating fines, starting at $25,000 per day, should companies refuse to comply with court-ordered wiretaps. Companies that receive wiretap orders will have 30 days to discuss any technical limitations with the government that would prevent them from being able to comply, according to the Times.

Critics worry that the change could endanger confidential communications. They say it could pressure internet communications providers to install backdoor wiretapping capabilities before the government comes calling. Such backdoors, critics fear, could easily be exploited by hackers.

"The government should be doing everything in its power to increase the security of our communications networks, not riddling them with interception backdoors that will likely be exploited by criminals and foreign governments," Chris Soghoian the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. "History has shown time and time again that interception backdoors are fundamentally at odds with good cybersecurity."

The FBI insists that the proposed changes would not amount to an end run around the Constitution.

"This always requires a court order," Andrew Weissmann, the FBI's legal counsel, said in a statement to the Times. "None of the 'going dark' solutions would do anything except update the law given means of modern communications."

Yet as CNET's Declan McCullagh reported Wednesday, citing government documents obtained by the ACLU, the Justice Department and FBI have hinted that they may not seek search warrants to review such online correspondence.

"[I]f we combine that kind of cavalier attitude toward our constitutionally mandated protections with vastly expanded technical surveillance capabilities, then we've got a real problem," says Salon's Andrew Leonard. "Civil libertarians have a right to be nervous. Expanded power implies expanded opportunities to abuse that power."

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.