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Feds invite comment on VoIP wiretaps

'The new Ashcroft internet snooping request'

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday (23 Sept.) launched a public comment period on its plan to compel Internet broadband and VoIP providers to open their networks up to easy surveillance by law enforcement agencies.

At issue is the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), a federal law that mandates surveillance backdoors in US telephone networks, allowing the FBI to start listening in on a target's phone line within minutes of receiving court approval. Last month the commission tentatively approved a proposal by the Department of Justice, the FBI and the US Drug Enforcement Administration that interprets CALEA as applying to Internet traffic, ruling that cable modem, broadband over power line, satellite, wireless and other high-speed Internet providers are covered by the law. At the same time the FCC ruled that "managed" Internet telephony providers like Vonage must also become wiretap friendly.

The five-member commission voted unanimously for the measure, and is seeking the public's guidance on some implementation details, including the issue of how much time to allow service providers to wire their networks for spying.

Federal law already compels ISPs to cooperate with law enforcement in court-approved surveillance of customers, but as police rely more on Internet snooping - with tools like the FBI's "Carnivore" DCS-1000 packet sniffer - they've begun to crave the speed and low cost of the wiretapping infrastructure that CALEA grafted onto the modern telephone network. The Justice Department first began lobbying for CALEA's application to the Internet over two years ago.

"Our support for law enforcement is unwavering," said FCC chairman Michael Powell, in announcing the decision last month. "It is our goal in this proceeding to ensure that law enforcement agencies have all of the electronic surveillance capabilities that CALEA authorizes to combat crime and terrorism and support homeland security."

The EFF, ACLU, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center all opposed the plan, and an ACLU letter-drive generated hundreds of mailings from citizens against what the group called "the New Ashcroft Internet Snooping Request." In congressional testimony earlier this month, James Dempsey, executive director of the non-profit Center for Democracy and Technology, argued that the 10-year-old wiretap law was a poor fit for the Internet. "Instead of making the Internet look like the telephone system of the past, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies need to acquire in-house capabilities to analyze digital communications," said Dempsey. "They should use the Internet, not try to control it."

Comments are due by 8 November.

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