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FBI phone-snoop regs challenged by Net privacy groups

FCC dictates technical specs at DoJ's bidding, critics charge

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A coalition of Internet privacy groups has filed a brief in federal court seeking to block Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations which they claim "enable the FBI to dictate the design of the nation's communication infrastructure." The rules would enable the FBI to track the physical locations of cellular phone users and potentially monitor Internet traffic, the coalition charges. Thursday's filing in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia included the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The plaintiffs say that the FCC regulations, issued last August, exceed the requirements of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), and are likely to result in a significant increase in government interception of digital communications. The CALEA requires telecoms systems to comply with FBI technical requirements, in order to facilitate lawful electronic surveillance. But many are concerned that federal authorities will be tempted to snoop illegally because the FCC design regulations make it too easy. The groups maintain that the new FCC regs would require telecoms providers to determine the physical locations of mobile phones and deliver packet-mode communications, such as those that carry Internet traffic, to law enforcement agencies. The ACLU has warned that the Clinton Administration and Reno DoJ are using scare tactics in quest of new powers to spy on the populace. "If the FBI has its way, the only communications medium invulnerable to government snooping will consist of two soup cans and some string -- and even then, I'd be careful," ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt quipped. Oral arguments are scheduled to commence on 17 May in DC Federal Court. ®

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