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Wiretapping is vital for law enforcement agencies, said Lewis, because “it provides crucial evidence that wins a lot of their convictions. As technology changes, as the Internet changes, they have to keep up or they’ll lose an important tool in their arsenal.”

Civil rights and privacy groups were quick to condemn the plan, warning that the administration faces an uphill battle.

“This is a shortsighted and ill-conceived power grab by some in the administration,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The balance has swung radically toward enhanced law enforcement powers. For them to argue that it’s still not enough is just unbelievable. It’s breathtaking in its hubris.”

He said that over the past 15 years _ particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks _ the standards for warrants have been lowered. And he said law enforcement has many new technologies, ranging from biometric tracking to DNA databases, to enhance its information gathering.

Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that mandating that all communications software be accessible to the government is a “huge privacy invasion.”

“Under the guise of a technical fix, the government looks to be taking one more step toward conducting easy dragnet collection of Americans’ most private communications,” Calabrese said. “This proposal will create even more security risks by mandating that our communications have a ‘backdoor’ for government use and will make our online interactions even more vulnerable.”

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Associated Press writer Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.