Pushed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Obama administration may ask Congress for the power to snoop on more types of communication online. The timing couldn't be worse, given the outcry over the Justice Department secretly grabbing journalists' phone records and emails in its pursuit of government leakers. The bigger issue with what the FBI is seeking, though, is that it applies 20th century assumptions about surveillance to 21st century technologies.
Congress passed the Wiretap Act in 1968 to give federal investigators the power to listen in on suspects' phone calls if they obtained a federal court's permission. The advent of wireless phones and digital networks led the feds to worry about their ability to monitor suspects who used new technologies, so lawmakers amended the law to require telecommunications companies to build wiretap capabilities into their networks.
That requirement, however, applies only to service providers that use or connect to the traditional phone grid. These days, there's a growing number of ways to communicate through data networks that don't use any part of the phone grid, including online teleconferencing and virtual telephones built into instant-message programs. In the not-too-distant future, video calling is likely to be a standard feature in Web browsers, potentially turning every website into a virtual phone booth or party line.