Webtapping Close to Reality

Gretchen Gallen
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The federal government's petition to apply the same wiretapping surveillance laws to the Internet as the telecommunications industry hit a standstill recently when the Federal Communications Commission's public comment period came to an end, leaving both sides of the issue on 'webtapping' evenly divided. The FCC will review responses to the petition until April 27.

The Justice Department, FBI, and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have been asking the FCC to require Internet service providers (ISPs) to modify their networks to accommodate webtapping by the federal government and U.S. law enforcement agencies, according to SecurityFocus, a Canada-based security information provider.

In 1994, the Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) forced phone carriers to build convenient wiretap features into their networks to accommodate surveillance. The FBI and other federal agencies are pushing the FCC to revise CALEA to include the Internet in a vigorous lobbying effort that began last year.

There is already a federal statute that ensures cooperation from ISPs when it comes to court-approved surveillance of subscribers, but according to SecurityFocus, the feds are now aiming to secure a faster, easier infrastructure through which they can monitor the Internet under protections provided through Homeland Security.

Among the many civil liberties groups in opposition to the federal government's petition is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which argues that the FBI’s petition would impose a "massive bureaucratic structure upon innovation in communications," and that the federal government has not yet proven the need to access the Internet at such a high cost to civil liberties.

"The FBI has made it clear that they don't want to understand how the Internet is fundamentally different from the public phone service," said EFF staff technologist Chris Palmer. "The rapid innovation and open access that makes the Internet great will be severely hampered if creators have to get past the FCC and FBI every time they want to make an innovative product."

The industries in favor of the petition to include the Internet in a revised version of CALEA include state and local law enforcement agencies that perform wiretaps and companies that sell the supporting equipment for surveillance. Companies opposed to the directive include Internet companies that would have to incur the cost burden of altering their networks.

"The FBI's plan to turn the FCC into the 'Federal Bureau of Innovation Control' will be terribly expensive for everyone involved – except the FBI," Palmer continued. "The FCC, Internet service providers, equipment builders and broadband consumers are being set up to subsidize the FBI's surveillance state."