It is just a technical matter, the Obama administration says: We just need to make a slight change in a law to make clear that we have the right to see the names of anyone’s e-mail correspondents and their Web browsing history without the messy complication of asking a judge for permission.
It is far more than a technical change. The administration’s request, reported Thursday in The Washington Post, is an unnecessary and disappointing step backward toward more intrusive surveillance from a president who promised something very different during the 2008 campaign.
In a 1993 update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Congress said that Internet service providers have to turn over to the F.B.I., on request, “electronic communication transactional records.”
The government says this includes the e-mail records of their subscribers, specifically the addresses to which e-mail messages were sent, and the times and dates. (The content of the messages can remain private.) It may also include Web browsing records. To get this information, the F.B.I. simply has to ask for it in the form of a national security letter, which is an administrative request that does not require a judge’s signature.