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Social media feeling pressure from police

– Google, Twitter and even Silicon Valley startups are confronting calls by law enforcement since 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 companies including Google and Twitter in months before the bombing, seeing increasing value in smartphone data, emails and online chats to help find and prevent terrorist 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. “It’s not just Verizon and phone companies like that; there’s Twitter and all kinds of methods for people to communicate.”

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, expose them to liability and open them up to cyber attacks.

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.

“Any time you try to introduce a back door into something, you create a huge vulnerability,” said Mike Janke, chief executive officer of Silent Circle Inc. The Washington startup encrypts communications services.

Law enforcement requests from within the U.S. for data from some social-media companies are 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 ever.

Twitter received 815 requests in the United States between July and December 2012, up from 679 requests between January and June 2012, according to an online company report.

Microsoft received 11,073 requests in the U.S. in 2012, while its Skype unit received 1,154 requests, according to the company’s first online report.

Microsoft and other companies reject some requests. Microsoft provided law enforcement with customer data, such as words in an email, in response to 13.9 percent of valid court orders or warrants.

Skype didn’t provide data at all.