by Kristin Burnham

FBI Wants to Wiretap Social Media Sites: Is It Fair?

May 09, 20123 mins
LegalSocial Networking Apps

The FBI is pushing to amend a 1994 law that would force Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites to become ‘wire-tap’ friendly. Is this the next logical step in ensuring homeland security or is it an intrusion of privacy?


As email, instant messaging, videoconferencing and tweeting have risen in popularity, authorities have had difficulty eavesdropping on conversations. But if the Federal Bureau of Investigation gets its way, your posts on Twitter, Facebook and Google Chat could be subjected to wiretapping.

A CNET story reports that the FBI is asking Internet companies to support a proposal that would require firms—including Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and Google—to “build in backdoors for government surveillance.” From the article:

In meetings with industry representatives, the White House, and U.S. senators, senior FBI officials argue the dramatic shift in communication from the telephone system to the Internet has made it far more difficult for agents to wiretap Americans suspected of illegal activities, CNET has learned.

The FBI general counsel’s office has drafted a proposed law that the bureau claims is the best solution: requiring that social-networking Web sites and providers of VoIP, instant messaging, and Web e-mail alter their code to ensure their products are wiretap-friendly.

The proposal amends a 1994 law, called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which currently applies only to telecom providers and broadband networks, and not Internet companies. CNET says that there are indications that the Federal Communications Commission is considering reinterpreting CALEA to encompass products that allow video or VoIP, such as Skype, Google Hangouts and Xbox.

As expected, privacy advocates aren’t onboard. Marc Roth, attorney at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, told the eCommerce Times that it’s a violation of citizens’ privacy:

“Allowing access to social media channels could be more broad sweeping and violate privacy rights of citizens, as such efforts may involve searching key words or tracking behavioral activity, which are not directed to targeted individuals. It may result in a virtual fishing expedition,” he says.

Some say it could also pose compliance problems for these Internet companies. TechAmerica, a trade association that includes representatives of HP, eBay, IBM, Qualcomm and others told CNET in an email that such a law would “represent a sea change in government surveillance law, imposing significant compliance costs on both traditional (think local exchange carriers) and nontraditional (think social media) communications companies.”

But the problems don’t stop there: VentureBeat says amending such a law will hurt the U.S.’s competitiveness in technology:

“I can’t imagine a better way to kill U.S. competitiveness in the tech sector abroad,” writes the VentureBeat’s John Koetsier. “What European, Asian, or South American will want to use a U.S. product such as Google+ or Facebook knowing that the U.S. government has easy access to whatever is said, shared, uploaded, or done there? This could accelerate massive migration away from predominantly American tools and networks.”

Like traditional telecom wiretaps, it’s important to remember that social media and Internet “wiretaps” would be for Americans suspected of illegal activities. But considering the implications, do you think the FBI is right to amend CALEA? Cast your vote in our poll below.