Fed Wiretappers Can't Keep Up With All These New Chat Apps

Wiretapping used to be straightforward. Potential drug lord? Bug his phone! But the proliferation of online chat options is making it hard for law enforcement officials and intelligence agents to carry out court-ordered wiretaps.

FBI officials told The Washington Post that the Bureau has trouble fulfilling wiretaps because suspects use such a wide range of chat and online communication channels.

One former U.S. official said that each year "hundreds" of individualized wiretap orders for foreign intelligence are not being fully executed because of a growing gap between the government's legal authority and its practical ability to capture communications — a problem that bureau officials have called "going dark."

Some of the chat services don't have the capacity to be intercepted. As the Post pointed out, traditional phone networks and ISPs are required to build in government intercept technology. But companies that offer chat apps and other communication services aren't required to do the same. There are over 4,000 services that allow people to connect online, and most of them don't have built-in intercept systems.

The FBI has pushed to change that, demanding for the power to make chat programs install surveillance gear. They've been trying for years and it hasn't happened yet.

After the NSA spying revelations, the cultural climate is pretty hostile towards the idea of institutionalized surveillance, and companies don't want to be seen as stooges of Big Brother.

Some companies draw out the process of negotiating with the government. Others provide suspects' Internet-based messages hours after they are sent, or offer minimal forms of compliance — weekly screen shots of a suspect's communications, for instance — and argue they have fully complied, government officials said.

I can't see this problem going away any time soon. Mostly because the government is always going to be several steps behind the general public re: using technology. But also because people really hate the idea of government agencies spying on them, and companies serving users suspicious of government surveillance are not going to go out of their way to make surveillance easy.

No chatting service with a modicum of common sense would go out of their way to comply with requests that will piss off their users, even if the government has completely legitimate reasons to wiretap someone. This could become a grave problem in certain cases, like if intercepting WhatsApp messages could help the FBI recover a kidnapping victim. But no matter how compelling the reasons for the wiretaps are, hostility against government surveillance is going to either keep this situation where it is, or make it worse. [Washington Post]

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