'Rough road ahead' for Internet wiretap bill

Perry Apelbaum, Democratic staff director for the House Judiciary Committee, agreed that it is an "explosive" issue.

"Some would posit that 'Gee, it looks like they already have their access to a lot of the back end of the social media network sites,'" Apelbaum said during the panel discussion at a cable industry conference in Washington. 

For several years, the FBI has complained that it is becoming difficult to intercept the communications of suspected criminals as more people use online services instead of phones.

"A growing gap exists between the statutory authority of law enforcement to intercept electronic communications pursuant to court order and our practical ability to intercept those communications," FBI Director Robert Mueller said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in late 2011. "Should this gap continue to grow, there is a very real risk of the government 'going dark' resulting in an increased risk to national security and public safety."

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994 imposes technical requirements on phone companies to speedily comply with court-approved wiretap orders, but the law doesn't cover Internet services like instant messaging, email or social media sites. 

The Obama administration is working on a draft proposal that would expand CALEA to put legal pressure on companies like Google and Facebook to comply with court orders to monitor their users. 

During a talk at the American Bar Association in March, FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann said gaining more power to wiretap Internet communications is his agency's "top priority" for the year.

But the committee aides said they have no plans to move on legislation until the administration puts forward a formal proposal.

"We want to take a real hard look at it and study it and do some oversight internally before we make decisions about what to do and when," Branden Ritchie, deputy chief of staff for the House Judiciary Committee, said. 

Major Internet companies including Google, Facebook and Microsoft denied news reports last week that they have given the NSA direct access to their servers to mine their users' data as part of a program called PRISM.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed the program's existence but said the government does not "unilaterally" obtain information from Internet companies. 

He said that the Internet companies provide user data to the NSA only after receiving an order approved by a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. Those courts only approve information requests if there is a "foreign intelligence purpose" and the target is "reasonably believed" to be outside of the United States, Clapper claimed.