February 13, 2004 3:36 PM PST

VoIP: It's not so easy to listen in

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Some Internet phone service providers say they're willing to cooperate with police seeking to wiretap conversations--but they can't because of technical limitations.

Jeff Pulver, founder of Free World Dialup, said Friday that if law enforcement officials asked him to wiretap one of his subscribers' Internet phone calls he would need a "few months science project" to see if it could be done.


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Meanwhile, Niklas Zennstrom, founder of Skype, also a free Internet phone service,

The two providers are prime examples of a problem the Federal Communications Commission now faces after voting Thursday to investigate whether Internet phone providers should rewire their networks to government specifications to provide police with guaranteed access for wiretaps.

While many voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers are more than willing to hand over whatever information they can about subscribers, they can't reliably, if at all, get what police really want: the content of the calls they make. Difficulties lie in gathering the millions of bits of information that represent a voice call as well as the fact that there is no standardized way for distinguishing voice calls from the terabits of other data on the Internet.

The issue affects a broad range of VoIP providers, including FWD and Skype, and commercial services such as Vonage and 8x8 that offer calls to traditional phone lines. Many of these commercial services say a sizable percentage of their calls never touch the traditional phone network and, as a result, cannot be tapped.

"Maybe in a couple of years we'll be able to do this, but not right now," Pulver said.

One proposed solution being mulled over by the FCC is to give wiretapping responsibility to broadband providers, whose high-speed Web connections are necessary to make VoIP calls. But broadband providers say they, too, would have problems, for very much the same reasons as VoIP companies. "We're citizens too. We don't want terrorists using our networks," said Larry Plumb, a Verizon Communications spokesman.

Skype's Zennstrom said wiretapping laws need to be rewritten to reflect how phone calls are moving off traditional phone networks and onto the Internet. The 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), he said, was written at a time when being a phone service provider meant owning a telephone network. But that's not the case anymore. All that's needed now to peddle phone calls is downloadable software.

"In the old world, police would go to the local phone company and ask for a wiretap," he said. "But in the Internet world, it's not as easy."

An FCC representative had no immediate comment Friday.

In a sign of the infighting to come over the CALEA issue, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said Thursday that his primary objection to letting some Net phone service providers go unregulated is "on law enforcement and national security grounds. There's been no assurances yet of a demonstrated solution."

Free World Dialup's Pulver said: "I'm also not sure how some of these providers are going to meet CALEA."

 

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