Five Communications Channels Feds May Soon Wiretap

Monday, March 07, 2011



The advent of new media like social networks, new communications channels like IM, IRC, VoIP, and new devices like smartphones, have rendered current laws governing wire tapping outdated, and officials want lawmakers to narrow the gap by addressing the issue with new legislation.

Investigations by law enforcement officials are being stymied by the rapid change in communications platforms which have exceeded their ability to effectively execute search warrants in a timely manner.

Jennifer Martinez of Politico has identified the top five social media technologies the federal government could target for better access with new legislation and regulations.

A summary is as follows:

1. Web-based e-mail and real-time chat:

Google operates such services in Gmail, the Web-mail program, and Google Chat, an instant messaging platform...  From January to June of last year, the search company received more than 4,280 requests for user data from the U.S. government, up from 3,580 requests made during the previous six-month period... It’s also unclear whether law enforcement can tap instant-message conversations over Google Chat in real time...

2. Private tweets:

Twitter states on its website that the company will notify a user if information about that user’s account is being sought, unless it is “prohibited from doing so by statute or court order.” In the WikiLeaks case, there was a court order. Twitter decided to challenge that order, which eventually was unsealed and now is subject to a challenge by the Twitter users...

3. Your whereabouts from IP addresses:

Internet service providers and other Web-based services store a key piece of data about customers: their Internet Protocol — or IP — addresses, which help keep track of customers’ whereabouts. An IP address is a numeric label tagged to a computer, printer or other device on a network...

4. Social networks:

All of Facebook’s user information is stored on its servers in the United States and therefore is subject to law enforcement requests for that. However, Facebook weighs each request for user information before taking any action, and if a request is “deemed appropriate,” the social network will share only the “minimum amount of information,” the company said... Facebook declined to comment about whether law enforcement can tap real-time conversations on its instant-message feature...

5. Peer-to-peer calling services:

Skype allows people to make voice or video calls on the Web, much like the traditional telephone. But a potential snag for law enforcement is that the Luxembourg-based company only provides the technology that enables people to make calls and does not store any users’ conversations. “There’s no central Skype server where the government can say, ‘This is where we’re going to place our wiretap,’” said Josh Gruenspecht, the cybersecurity fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology...

A central issue is the inability of new communications platforms to collect and store the kind of data law enforcement needs to pursue indictments. Even if the technological ability to capture the data is available, current laws do not require the service providers to store the information and provide it to law enforcement in a timely manner.

That may all change soon.

For a more complete description of the five technologies Martinez identified, see the complete article at Politico:


Possibly Related Articles:
Twitter Gmail Social Media Skype Headlines IP Address Wiretapping Instant Messaging
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