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FCC poised to require CALEA compliance

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Virtually everything done via TCP/IP, with the (for now) exception of instant messaging, is on its way to becoming wiretap-friendly, thanks to a tentative 5-0 decision by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Wednesday.

Thanks to relentless lobbying and fear-mongering by law enforcement outfits and the companies that sell surveillance equipment to them, all broadband communications, including VoIP, will have to be modified to allow the Feds to patch in easily and immediately, in order to comply with the 1994 Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA).

VoIP schemes that work only between computers will not be affected. Only so-called 'managed' services - those that allow VoIP and PSTN to communicate - will have to comply. Instant messaging is also exempt, although the Feds lobbied ruthlessly for its inclusion, and will no doubt continue until the government finally gives it to them.

Encrypted VoIP is available, but only through pricey services geared towards corporate clients. It is possible that the FCC action might result in the development of inexpensive encryption solutions for more basic VoIP services, perhaps via TLS (Transport Layer Security), though it is difficult to imagine extending encryption to calls where VoIP and PSTN are communicating.

Other regulatory disputes involving VoIP were not considered in Wednesday's vote. Additionally, 'push to talk' walkie-talkie mobile phone services are equally affected by the CALEA, the FCC has decided. It does not appear that broadband and VoIP providers will receive assistance with the costs of implementing CALEA compliance, unless Congress decides to come to their rescue.

The public comment period for VoIP CALEA compliance is still open, but with such a strong bias visible in Wednesday's preliminary vote, it is highly unlikely that anything can alter the FCC's direction. Final approval is all but certain. ®

Thomas C Greene is the author of Computer Security for the Home and Small Office, a comprehensive guide to system hardening, malware protection, online anonymity, encryption, and data hygiene for Windows and Linux.

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