WASHINGTON -- Google, Twitter and other companies are confronting calls by law enforcement following the Boston Marathon bombings to make their products more easily used for surveillance.
Police and federal agencies made record levels of requests for data from such companies in the months before the bombing, seeing increasing value in smartphone data, emails and online chats to help find and prevent terror plots and crime.
The International Association of Police Chiefs wants Congress to update a federal law to compel more companies providing communications services to build intercept tools that allow them to conduct surveillance with court orders.
"We just don't have the technology to keep up with what's going on," said Peter Modafferi, chairman of the association's investigative operations committee.
Location-tracking data from an Apple iPhone and images from smartphone cameras helped track down the two suspects in the April 15 attack, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Privacy advocates and Internet companies oppose the request, saying building so-called back doors into devices and platforms could cost them customers and expose them to liability and cyber-attacks. Also, they say it would be burdensome to reconfigure products that make user data anonymous.
The Obama administration is discussing legislative options to update the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, and no decisions have been made yet, said a law enforcement official who wasn't authorized to speak about the talks.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said steps are needed to build the intelligence and surveillance capabilities of local police around the country. "We have to be aggressive and not worry about political correctness," King said.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced bills in March requiring law enforcement to obtain warrants before acquiring geolocation data of citizens through smartphones or GPS-enabled devices.
Requiring companies to build surveillance capabilities into their products could cost startups hundreds of millions of dollars and damage their reputations with customers who believe they are sharing data with government, said Josh Mendelsohn, managing director at Hattery, a venture capital firm with offices in San Francisco and New York.
"Anytime you try to introduce a back door into something you create a huge vulnerability," said Mike Janke, chief executive of Silent Circle Inc., a Washington-based startup that encrypts communications services.
It may be impossible for some companies to comply with surveillance requests because they use aggregated, anonymous data, Mendelsohn said. "We don't want to be forced to have to dismantle or change our business models due to new legislation or nonjudicial requests," he said.
Law enforcement requests for data from some social media companies is at an all-time high. Google's online transparency report shows that, along with the company's video-hosting website YouTube, it received 8,438 data requests from U.S. agencies between July and December last year -- the most in any six-month period.
Twitter received 815 requests in the United States between July and December 2012, according to an online company report.
Microsoft received 11,073 requests in the United States in 2012 while its Skype unit received 1,154 requests, according to the company. Microsoft and other companies reject some requests.
The FBI opened a new center in February for training law enforcement officials on electronic intercept tactics.
Modafferi, of the police chiefs group, said law enforcement should be able to get tracking data from smartphones without a warrant. "We're not talking about snooping but if we have reasonable suspicion to believe that somebody's involved in criminal activity, we need to look at that," he said.
Law enforcement agencies have options when a company doesn't comply with court-ordered wiretaps, said Paul Tiao, a former senior counselor for cybersecurity and technology at the FBI. Those include bringing a contempt action or obtaining data from another electronic or human source, Tiao said.
"The challenge is how to develop a system that enables the FBI and law enforcement agencies to protect the country without undermining the competitiveness and innovation of Internet entrepreneurs," he said.