By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and British officials are discussing possible avenues for UK spy agencies and police to be able to directly ask U.S.-based media companies to turn over email and online chat records from people under UK investigation, U.S. officials said on Friday.
As governments and online companies struggle to find a balance between privacy and law enforcement concerns, three U.S. officials confirmed a bilateral deal was under discussion between close allies the United States and Britain.
The Washington Post reported talks were focused on letting UK agencies, such as counter-intelligence agency MI5, serve "production orders" on U.S. firms demanding data for what the Post called “live intercepts” in inquiries involving UK citizens.
The Post said UK agencies might also be able to ask U.S. companies to turn over stored data, such as emails.
The Post quoted a U.S. official saying UK nationals, including criminals, are using U.S. data providers such as Google, Facebook and Hotmail, making it difficult for foreign agencies to get legal access to data needed for criminal and counter-terrorism investigations.
The United States and Britain are discussing a deal that would "make cross-border requests for certain electronic communications data for law enforcement and national security purposes more effective and efficient, while still protecting privacy and civil liberties," a senior U.S. official told Reuters.
A U.S. government source, who asked for anonymity on sensitive legal issues, said U.S. law now generally bars communication and social media companies from complying with foreign governments' data requests. This is the case even though criminal inquiries often hinge on cross-border communications.
As a result, the source told Reuters, U.S. firms approached by foreign government may face a tough choice: cooperate and break U.S. law or ignore the request and comply with U.S. law.
Representative Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Congress should keep a sharp eye on any privacy and civil liberties issues that arise, "including making sure these British orders do not cover U.S. persons or individuals within the U.S., do not permit bulk collection, and have due process protections that meet high standards."
The Post said it had reviewed a copy of a negotiating document on the subject. The newspaper said that under the new procedures which are being discussed between London and Washington, the British government would not be able to obtain records of Americans if a U.S. citizen or resident's name surfaced during the course of a U.K investigation.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and James Dalgleish)