The Obama Administration is reportedly considering a statute that would make it easier for federal authorities to intercept communications over services such as Facebook, Skype and BlackBerry -- an idea that's stoking anxiety within the privacy community.

The measure would force Internet companies that provide communications services to add in capabilities allowing federal authorities to intercept any messages on their networks, and to unscramble encrypted ones, the New York Times reported today .

The idea is being driven by law enforcement authorities worried that their ability to wiretap criminal and terrorism suspects is being eroded as more communications take place online rather than by phone.

A bill outlining the requirements could go to lawmakers sometime next year, the Times said.

Under the existing Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), telecommunications providers are already required to provide interception capabilities to federal law enforcement officials. The new proposals would extend that capability to the Internet.

The growing use of peer-to-peer services such as Skype and encrypted e-mail services on Research In Motion (RIM)'s BlackBerry is making it harder for federal authorities to pursue criminal suspects on the Internet, the newspaper reported.

The FBI did not immediately respond to a Computerworld request for comment.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, said that any mandate requiring Internet companies to enable federal wiretapping is a very bad idea.

"It's an outrageous plan for a variety of reasons," Rotenberg said. Since CALEA went into effect, law enforcement authorities have steadily assumed new surveillance capabilities through new laws and technologies, he said.

Tools such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and National Security Letters (NSL), for instance, have already greatly broadened federal authority to intercept communications. At the same time, the standards for issuing warrants for wiretaps have also been lowered in recent years, Rotenberg said.

"We no longer have the checks and balances that existed 12 to 15 years ago," he said. Any attempt to further expand federal authority into the Internet realm is a "frightening prospect."

But Ira Winkler, president of the Internet Security Advisors Group and a Computerworld columnist, said that many privacy concerns are overstated. What the U.S. is seeking to do is something that other countries have been doing as well, he said. "There's nothing outrageous about the U.S. [authorities] saying they want to have the ability to enforce their laws."

Rather than being worried about government's ability to intercept communications for legitimate law enforcement purposes, the real concern should be over continued compromise of personal data online, he said. "Where's the outrage when Facebook and others allow themselves to get hacked into" and personal data gets into the hands of criminals, he said. "I am more concerned about criminals than about the abuse potential by the U.S. government."

News of the proposed regulations in the U.S highlights the growing anxiety among governments about the use of online communication services and encrypted e-mail as the main channel for all sorts of communications.

The governments in India, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are already in a running battle with RIM over the company's BlackBerry service. Both have asked RIM to either disable its service in their countries or to provide a way for law enforcement authorities to intercept and read encrypted BlackBerry communications.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com .

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