- Associated Press - Monday, September 27, 2010

The Obama administration is pushing to make it easier for the government to tap into Internet and e-mail communications. But the plan has already drawn condemnation from privacy groups, and communications firms may be wary of its costs and scope.

Frustrated by sophisticated and often encrypted phone and e-mail technologies, U.S. officials say that law enforcement needs to improve its ability to eavesdrop on conversations involving terrorism, crimes or other public safety issues.

Critics worry the changes are an unnecessary invasion of privacy and would only make citizens and businesses more vulnerable to identity theft and espionage.

The new regulations that would be sent to Congress next year would affect American and foreign companies that provide communications services inside the U.S. It would require service providers to make the plain text of encrypted conversations - over the phone, computer or e-mail - readily available to law enforcement, according to federal officials and analysts.

The mandate would likely require companies to add backdoors or other changes to the systems that would allow a wiretap to capture an unscrambled version of a conversation.

Those affected by the changes would include online services and networking sites such as Facebook and Skype, as well as phone systems that deliver encrypted e-mail such as BlackBerry.

“The way we communicate has changed dramatically since 1994, but telecommunications law has not kept up. This gap between reality and the law has created a significant national security and public safety problem,” said Valerie E. Caproni, the FBI’s general counsel.

She said the changes would not expand law enforcement authority and would involve legally authorized intercepts on calls or e-mails sent by terrorists or other criminals. The changes would allow companies to respond quickly to wiretap requests from local, state and federal authorities.

The New York Times first reported Monday about White House plans to submit the new bill next year.

Communications companies may have concerns about the costs of modifying their systems or software to allow the intercepts. The government may have to provide some funding aid.

Companies may also balk if the government tries to tell them how to alter their systems.