June 16, 2004 10:54 AM PDT

Feds: VoIP a potential haven for terrorists

WASHINGTON--The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday lashed out at Internet telephony, saying the fast-growing technology could foster "drug trafficking, organized crime and terrorism."

Laura Parsky, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, told a Senate panel that law enforcement bodies are deeply worried about their ability to wiretap conversations that use voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services.

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"I am here to underscore how very important it is that this type of telephone service not become a haven for criminals, terrorists and spies," Parsky said. "Access to telephone service, regardless of how it is transmitted, is a highly valuable law enforcement tool."

Police been able to conduct Internet wiretaps for at least a decade, and the FBI's controversial Carnivore (also called DCS1000) system was designed to facilitate online surveillance. But Parsky said that discerning "what the specific (VoIP) protocols are and how law enforcement can extract just the specific information" are difficult problems that could be solved by Congress requiring all VoIP providers to build in backdoors for police surveillance.

The Bush administration's request was met with some skepticism from members of the Senate Commerce committee, who suggested that it was too soon to impose such weighty regulations on the fledgling VoIP industry. Such rules already apply to old-fashioned telephone networks, thanks to a 1994 law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA).

"What you need to do is convince us first on a bipartisan basis that there's a problem here," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "I would like to hear specific examples of what you can't do now and where the law falls short. You're looking now for a remedy for a problem that has not been documented."

Wednesday's hearing was the first to focus on a bill called the VoIP Regulatory Freedom Act, sponsored by Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. It would ban state governments from regulating or taxing VoIP connections. It also says that VoIP companies that connect to the public telephone network may be required to follow CALEA rules, which would make it easier for agencies to wiretap such phone calls.

The Justice Department's objection to the bill is twofold: Its wording leaves too much discretion with the Federal Communications Commission, Parsky argued, and it does not impose wiretapping requirements on Internet-only VoIP networks that do not touch the existing phone network, such as Pulver.com's Free World Dialup.

"It is even more critical today than (when CALEA was enacted in 1994) that advances in communications technology not provide a haven for criminal activity and an undetectable means of death and destruction," Parsky said.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., wondered if it was too early to order VoIP firms to be wiretap-friendly by extending CALEA's rules. "Are we premature in trying to tie all of this down?" he asked. "The technology shift is so rapid and so vast."

The Senate's action comes as the FCC considers a request submitted in March by the FBI. If the request is approved, all broadband Internet providers--including companies using cable and digital subscriber line technology--will be required to rewire their networks to support easy wiretapping by police.

Wednesday's hearing also touched on which regulations covering 911 and "universal service" should apply to VoIP providers. The Sununu bill would require the FCC to levy universal service fees on Internet phone calls, with the proceeds to be redirected to provide discounted analog phone service to low-income and rural American households.

One point of contention was whether states and counties could levy taxes on VoIP connections to support services such as 911 emergency calling. Because of that concern, "I would not support the bill as drafted and I hope we would not mark up legislation at this point," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., added: "The marketplace does not always provide for critical services such as emergency response, particularly in rural America. We must give Americans the peace of mind they deserve."

Some VoIP companies, however, have announced plans to support 911 calling. In addition, Internet-based phone networks have the potential to offer far more useful information about people who make an emergency call than analog systems do.


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Most VoIP technologies travel over analog phone lines at some point (like Vonage). They should be completely wiretappable without regulation.

Computer telephone calls (voice to voice) are generally unencrypted and sent over open networks (otherwise known as the Internet)--these are also wiretappable, to the extent technically possible--no regulation could increase this extent.

I would be concerned about Skype, but that you can't wiretap at all--because of the "peer-to-peer" encrypted communication mechanism.

Nevertheless, you still could know the time a packet was sent intiating a call in Skype (assuming calls are encrypted only after they are begun), when a login occurred, and who was on that person's buddy list. But any search would be so broad as to be unreasonable.

In addition, once Skype expands to cordless telephones--again, you are transmitting them over analog lines.

So let's wait and see..

Posted by smkatz (38 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why should I have to pay more...
for a VoIP phone just so people in rural America (who probably make more than I do) can have discount analog service. I already shell out the $35.00 a month for cable internet access plus the cost of a subscription to cable t.v service (which is required to get cable internet access). Then their is the month charge for VoIP service on top of that. I am getting kind of sick of these wealth redistribution plans, especially since I am not wealthy. I don't think I should be punished just because I live in an area where broadband is avaliable.

I don't think requiring ISPs to rewire for easy wiretapping is going to solve anything. If terrorists and other criminals want to communicate over the internet there are more secure ways of doing it.
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Bad G'ment
A complete lie on the G'ments part, right along with the whole patroit acts "lets create more laws to duplicate the existing laws so it looks like out fat congressional ***** collectivly give a royal crap" mentality.
Now for the kicker. Didnt anyone tell you. A freshman computer science major could write a server client application the would encrypt and protect any kind of internet communication. Hell, didnt anyone ever tell you a smart HS freshman cold do it. And what, we are supposed to beleive that ragmops are too stupid to code?!?
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
In Other News Tin Cans and String Could be Used by Terrorists
The FBI has reported to the associated press that terrorists may be using tin cans and string to communicate their plans.
"Security on sales of these products MUST become more secure if we are to assure America's freedom" "We can no longer afford to allow string to fall into the hands of a terrorist. The risks are just too great" said Tom Ridge at a major press conference this afternoon.

In other news Pepsi and Coke in cooperation with The Department of Homeland Insecurity has initiated a program to replace all AL cans with paper cups.
CNN correspondent Sideshow Bob had this to say on the action "Can't paper cups transmit sound almost as well as metal?"
Soon after Pepsi rescinded its previous program with news that people will now simply have to cup their hands to carry their pop. Its just the right thing to do said a Pepsi representative.
Posted by Jonathan (832 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Right on!~
Perfect analogy.

Terrorists are probably already using VOIP and many other methods of communication. I read someplace that even 5 years ago, Al Quaida's favorite method of communication was to create a website and embed information in the pages so that a fellow terrorist could basically "read the coding" in the page at some remote location. That is so far and above what VOIP does that VOIP isn't even in the same league in terms of covert communications.

Lay off VOIP. Concentrate on all the other ways of cummunicating among terrorists. Tapping into VOIP based on the terrorist threat is such BS -- this is really a backdoor move by the Bell companies to get VOIP regulated so that they can partake.
Posted by (6 comments )
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