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Companies and advocacy groups opposed to the FBI's plan to make the internet more accommodating to covert law enforcement surveillance are sharpening a new argument against the controversial proposal: that law enforcement's Internet spying capabilities are just fine as it is.

In comments filed with the FCC Tuesday, advocates with the Center for Democracy and Technology argue the government hasn't offered any evidence that law enforcement agencies face obstacles in conducting internet wiretaps under current regulations - which obligate ISPs and other companies to cooperate with court-authorized surveillance, but do not force them to retrofit their networks with special surveillance gear, as the government is asking.

"In the absence of evidence of any problem, it is impossible for the Commission to act," wrote CDT, representing a handful of technology companies, industry associations and advocacy groups, including the Computer and Communications Industry Association, Dialpad Communications, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Information Technology Association of America, and others.

At issue is the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), a federal law that mandates surveillance backdoors in U.S. telephone networks, allowing the FBI to start listening in on a target's phone line within minutes of receiving court approval. In August, the FCC unanimously gave tentative approval to a proposal by the Department of Justice, the FBI and the U.S. 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 FCC opened the matter to public comment, specifically seeking guidance on some implementation details, including the issue of how much time to allow service providers to wire their networks for spying. But many of the flurry of comments that followed challenged the fundamentals of the FCC's ruling, including the commission's authority to expand CALEA to the internet in the first place. Reply comments were due this week.

Government lawyers, in comments also filed Tuesday, said U.S. law enforcement's mission "to protect America and its citizens from terrorists and other criminals" is threatened by rapidly advancing technology. "CALEA was intended to enable law enforcement to keep up with these advancements, and the Commission should ensure that its implementation of CALEA continues to serve the interests of law enforcement and national security," the filing reads.

The CDT is asking the FCC to step back from its August ruling, "identify specific problems, and then craft solutions that respond to actual problems rather than vague assertions of need."

Copyright © 2004, SecurityFocus logo

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