LAW enforcement officials must pursue criminal and terrorism suspects with every legal weapon at their disposal. But if advances in technology effectively stymie official investigations, can government then demand help from communications providers? The answer isn't clear-cut.
The Obama Administration wants to make it easier for government agencies to tap into online communications, to conduct authorized surveillance in the same way that investigators now can eavesdrop on conversations over telephone landlines. The proposal raises legitimate red flags about privacy issues, as well as concerns about potentially costly impediments to innovation.
Wiretapping has proved critical for law enforcement agencies. But tracking suspicious activity on sophisticated and often encrypted methods of communication can be impossible without a technical fix.
Authorities call the loss of capacity to intercept electronic evidence or unscramble encrypted messages "going dark." As technology changes, they say they either must keep up with it or lose an important tool in their crime-fighting arsenal.
The Administration wants providers of online services and social networking sites, such as Facebook and Skype, as well as phone systems that deliver encrypted e-mail, such as BlackBerry, to develop interception capacities that could aid in investigations involving terrorism or crimes. Companies likely would be required to make plain text of encrypted conversations - over cell phones, online, or via e-mail - readily available to law enforcement officials with a court order.
Communication service providers already are subject to government wiretap orders. But a 1994 telecommunications law that requires phone and broadband networks to have interception capabilities doesn't apply to many of those providers.
The White House is developing legislation that would remove that exemption - but not, it's to be hoped, before the reservations expressed by privacy and civil-liberties advocates are fully considered and resolved.
Law enforcement and national security officials are right to worry that evolving communications technology may damage their ability to conduct vital surveillance.
The key, as always, is striking the right balance between personal privacy and public safety.