Spooks seek right to snoop on Internet phone calls

Will VoIP be wiretap-ready?

If a rapid-fire series of announcements from cable and telecom bigwigs last week confirms that Voice over IP (VoIP) has a future as a mainstream consumer technology, it's worth noting that the electronic surveillance mavens in the FBI and Justice Department saw it coming.

On Thursday, AT&T announced plans to deliver consumer Internet telephony services to the top 100 markets in the first quarter of 2004. Earlier in the week, Time Warner Cable announced a strategic partnership with Sprint and MCI to offer residential VoIP service around the country. And on Monday, Qwest Communications International began rolling out VoIP services to customers in Minnesota. In a statement, Qwest CEO Richard Notebaert declared: "The future of voice communications will be based on the Internet."

The announcements came on the heels of a day-long public forum held 1 December at the FCC to address the most contentious issue surrounding VoIP: whether or not it should be subject to the same government regulations as traditional wireline telephone services. Two days after that public forum, according to FCC filings, FBI officials had a more private meeting with half-a-dozen FCC staffers to reiterated the Bureau's view on the matter: VoIP should be regulated - at least enough to ensure that the FBI can listen-in.

At issue is the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), the Federal law that required telephone companies to modify their networks to be wiretap-friendly for the FBI.

CALEA created a vast electronic surveillance infrastructure that gives the government quick-and-easy access to telephone conversations, with prior court authorisation. But in the absence of any clear ruling that the law applies to Internet access providers, the FBI's been forced to use special tools and equipment, like its 'Carnivore' DCS-1000 packet sniffer, to perform Internet surveillance.

So last year, the FBI and Justice Department began lobbying the FCC to find that broadband companies are telecommunications carriers, and thus subject to CALEA. Last March, the bureau zeroed in on Voice over IP when it opposed a bid by entrepreneur Jeffrey Pulver to win an FCC declaration that his peer-to-peer Internet telephony service Free World Dialup is an "information service", and thus not subject to telecom regulations.

And in October the FBI opposed a similar effort by Vonage Holdings, after a federal judge in Minnesota ruled that the company's VoIP service could not be regulated by the state, and the company sought the same nod from the FCC.

Regulators are believed to be near a decision, and at least one commissioner has come down squarely on the FBI's side of the debate. "First, we must understand the concerns raised by DOJ and FBI that classifying Vonage's VoIP as an information service severely undercuts CALEA," said commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, at last week's FCC forum. "They say that call content and caller identification could evade lawful electronic surveillance, and that VoIP jeopardizes the ability of federal, state, and local governments to protect public safety and national security against domestic and foreign threats."

"Public safety," Adelstein added, "is not negotiable."

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