November 11, 2005 12:15 PM PST

Feds' Net-wiretap order set to kick in

On Monday, the clock starts ticking for broadband and Net-phone providers to make it easier for law enforcement to conduct surveillance on users of their networks.

According to a final order issued by the Federal Communications Commission in late September, all broadband Internet service providers and many Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, companies will have 18 months--until spring 2007--to ensure their systems have backdoors that allow police to eavesdrop on their customers' communications for investigative purposes.

The 59-page order (click for PDF) followed years of pressure from the FBI, the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration. It would broaden the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), an 11-year-old wiretapping law that currently applies only to "telecommunications carriers."

The FCC has justified the expansion on the basis of terrorism and homeland security concerns, echoing Bush administration officials who have warned, for example, of the perils of VoIP services in rogue hands.

But even as the order kicks in, it remains unclear exactly what classes of providers within those broad categories must comply with the new rules or what exactly they must do to achieve compliance.

The FCC said in its original order that it reached "no conclusions" about whether universities, research institutions, and small or rural broadband providers should be subject the requirements. It sought comments on that topic through subsequent FCC notice. The deadline for receiving that initial round of suggestions also happens to be Monday.

The order's vagueness has perplexed some groups hoping to submit constructive suggestions. In comments filed last week with the agency, C&W Enterprises, a small broadband provider in rural Western Texas, wrote, "it is difficult to assess what the costs would be for our company or what type of exemption we would advocate without knowing what we will be required to do under the CALEA rules."

The FCC also sought comments on whether to broaden the scope of wiretapping requirements for VoIP services. The original order imposes that burden only on "interconnected" VoIP providers, such as Vonage and SkypeOut, which route calls through the public telephone network--leaving others, such as peer-to-peer services, unaffected by the rules.

An FCC representative acknowledged last week that the existing order does not set specific requirements. Instead, it is designed to "get the industry thinking" about making the changes "so they can begin to incorporate CALEA compliance," he said.

The agency plans to release another order clarifying those points--though as for when, the representative said, "I don't have any sense for that now." (The original order said a follow-up should be expected "in the coming months.")

Some industry representatives reported that they're already seeking ways to comply as they await the more detailed rules. The cable broadband industry, which counted about 1.2 million VoIP customers and 23.5 million Internet subscribers as of the second quarter of this year, is "working with the FBI on a CALEA solution for cable broadband service," said Brian Dietz, spokesman for the National Cable and Television Association.

Verizon executive Douglas Sullivan said Friday that his company supports the government's "legal conclusions" about expanding the reach of CALEA and has been working with vendors over the past few years to build compliant equipment. He noted that several unanswered questions remained, including how to recover costs associated with the changes and how enforcement will operate. "We understand that the commission intends to address these issues in a follow-up order we hope will be issued very soon," Sullivan said in an e-mail interview.

Meanwhile, preliminary legal challenges to the rules linger. The first one came from the American Council on Education, which has said universities and research institutions deserve to be exempted from the regulations because the changes required are too expensive and would prompt inevitable tuition hikes. A day later, a coalition of groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology and the VoIP company Pulver.com, issued their own one-page notice of appeal. They intend to argue that Congress never intended for CALEA to apply to the Internet and that the FCC has stepped outside its bounds.

The court, as expected, consolidated both groups' challenges into one proceeding but has not yet taken any other actions, said John Morris of the Center for Democracy and Technology. The groups have until late November to file more detailed statements about the claims they're alleging.

8 comments

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im sure they already have a plan
Will be a matter of time before they are listing to your VOIP phone calls, and if they can, so can anyone else with the right software, or means
Posted by digitallysick (103 comments )
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Free speech and freedom from search...
Are now officially history! Thanks to the Patriot Act and legislation like this. Welcome to Amerika!
The jackbooted Republicans have take over!
Posted by Vetter83 (50 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: Free speach . . .
Unfortunately it wasn't just Republicans that voted for the Patriot Act, and that want it kept in place.

Will Rogers was fond of saying that "occasionally even an innocent man gets set to Congress". I find little evidence that that is still true.
Posted by rcrusoe (1305 comments )
Link Flag
"It takes an act of Congress"......
It is easy to pick on Republicans but as with another commenter, it isn't just the "jackbooted" rebuplicans who are responsible for this. You can thank a general lack of consideration for the Constitution coming from the left too.

So while it is easy to say that Republicans are "jackbooted", it is just as easy to say that Democrats are equally "jackbooted" as well. Both opt for different flavors of socialism and governmental control. Pick your poison - both kill your liberty without a second glance.
Posted by sumwatt (69 comments )
Link Flag
International Interferences
The main issue is not even the freedom of speech or the freedom to catch criminals or terrorists, but mostly a juridic problem of borders.

The Internet does not know borders, but laws do : if there is a backdoor in VoIP programs, will the FBI be able to tap my call with my French girlfriend ? Yes, they will do. Will they be allowed to do it ? No, they won't, even with the proper US warrant... because I am out of their juridiction : I am German, my girlfriend French and we both live in seperate European countries. So far away from the States, in particulary if we used Skipe, with servers in Luxembourg.

If there is a backdoor, it should be available for every state : the US, the French or the German. As long these countries are democraties -or seem to be democratie, no problem... but imagine a country like Iran being able to enter the backdoors !

I am sure some of the readers will say "Internet has been built by the US, so it belongs to the US" or "it is for the good of the pax americana"... On my side I won't call it as typical statement of American imperialism - which is not the case. But erevryone must be fairly admit : it is no good that a country - whether it is a democratie or not , whether it is the USA, Germany, France or Syria - controls one major technology others do not have. Sharing those technologies or access is the best way, they won't be ill used. It is true for A-bombs, it could be true for ViOP backdoors...
Posted by GuillaumeSim (4 comments )
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Time will produce work-arounds
Firstly, the US should have no ability to tap other individuals outside of their borders as this is criminal in anyone's language. But that aside, how long do you think it will take for the boffins out there to come up with scrambling code? I say it will be available way before the US can tap. What a waste of time for them.
Posted by rlazovic (1 comment )
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Let's Just Go Back To CB Radio
I think the gooberment should outlaw VoIP, cellphones, landlines, and tin cans/string. It should require that everyone use CB radio. Since CB airwaves are open, there is no need to deal with complex backdoors and messy court orders. 10-4 Good Buddy. See you at Radio Shack!
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
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Does this include Canada?
Does this include canadian isp's? if so,we're screwed, lol. Because pirating is not frowned upon up here.
Posted by agent_667 (1 comment )
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