Newsbrief: Feds Want Ability to Wiretap VoIP -- DEA Included, Naturally 1/16/04

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The Justice Department, the FBI, and the DEA have all signed a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking it to order companies that offer Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone services to reengineer their networks so law enforcement has the ability to overhear subscribers' conversations. Without those rules, the agencies warned in the letter delivered to the FCC in December, "criminals, terrorists, and spies (could) use VoIP services to avoid lawfully authorized surveillance."

VoIP offers telephone service through the Internet and bypasses regular phone company networks. Companies such as Vonage and Skype have stirred the telephony world by offering low, set-price long distance service, and the big telephone companies are now beginning to enter the competition. But the more consumers turn to VoIP, the more telephone conversations slip out of the grasp of would-be government wiretappers.

While the Justice Department prefers for political reasons to paint the request -- and legions of other post-911 encroachments on privacy -- as part of the war on terrorism, if VoIP wiretaps run in similar patterns to regular wiretaps, then the main target is not terrorists but drug scofflaws. In 2002, the last year for which information is available, law enforcement listened to nearly 2.2 million phone conversations under court-approved wiretaps. More than 80% of them were related to drug investigations, according to the Administrative Office of the US Courts.

The question the FCC must ponder is whether VoIP falls within the mandate of the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). That law, a legacy of the Clinton administration -- the imperatives of the security state being a bipartisan endeavor -- requires "telecommunications carriers" but not "information services" to provide ready wiretapping access. If the FCC rules against the feds, they could then appeal to Congress to rewrite the law.

But it's probably all for naught, anyway, said Jim Harper of the privacy advocacy web site Privacilla.org. "The FCC should ignore pleas about national security and sophisticated criminals because sophisticated parties will use noncompliant VoIP, available open source and offshore," he told CNet News. "CALEA for VoIP will only be good for busting small-time bookies, small-time potheads and other nincompoops."

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