The Obama administration has raised an important issue in looking into how to use legal surveillance authority on new technologies, such as social networking Web sites and voice-over-Internet telephone services.
The administration is concerned that terrorists are migrating to such services from traditional telephones, and the new technology doesn't offer a way for the government to intercept those communications. Thus, the administration is planning to seek legislation that would require those companies to adapt their technology to the needs of law enforcement.
It's a reasonable request, one that involves cost but doesn't dodge existing safeguards. What remains to be seen is if it is a doable one.
It is crucial for law enforcement to be able to keep up with the technology that criminals use. Recent changes in law, for example, allowed law enforcement to seek telephone taps against individuals rather than specific telephones. The reason: Technology had outpaced the law, with suspects sometimes using multiple cell phones.
The issue is akin to gathering DNA samples from criminals instead of merely taking fingerprints. As technology advances, it is crucial for the cops to keep up. Thus, the administration's request.
The problem is, these systems weren't built with that need in mind. In some cases, such as the social networking site Facebook, the technology was an outgrowth of the idea of a college student. Adding in a path for law enforcement could be very expensive and could stifle competition from others who think they have a better idea.
Those, too, are serious issues, but they can't trump the legitimate needs of law enforcement in an age when we know a few people can murder thousands in a single blow. The administration should be discussing this with experts in the field, including representatives of the businesses that would be affected. With effort, that could make the imposition of a law smoother and more effective.
Americans, of course, have learned to be wary of government overreaching. The Bush administration sought, and received, a significant expansion of authority to monitor suspicious activity, only to abuse the power.
The Obama administration is talking about how it can effectively monitor social networking sites legally — with court oversight. But that doesn't mean that people in this or future administrations won't overstep their authority.
An expansion of the law will necessarily require some degree of trust, but it should also include an ability to watch the watchers. Oversight will be necessary.