Milking the Internet surveillance cash cow
Pundits and policy-makers are arguing over the legal implications of the FBI's recent petition to the FCC about how to implement the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. But the Bureau's push to get broadband providers covered under CALEA, which currently applies only to telecom carriers, stands to benefit more than just government spies: a domestic eavesdropping industry stands waiting to sell Internet wiretapping tools and services to cable and DSL companies.
Virginia-based Fiducianet is one such company. Company president Michael Warren has worked on CALEA compliance issues for most of his career, first as an FBI agent in charge of bringing telecom companies into line, and today as an entrepreneur. Because CALEA stipulates that telecom carriers must build their networks to be surveillance-ready for law enforcement, Warren's position at the FBI meant that he was responsible for transforming the country's telephone infrastructure. He worked with manufacturers and carriers to design surveillance tools that could be implemented on thousands of switches across the country.
"Companies spend a great deal of money getting ready for intercept requests from law enforcement," he said. "It costs 250 to 350 dollars for a company to process a subpoena, and they get no return on it. Fiducianet can make it faster and cheaper for them." Warren's business - providing large telecom and broadband companies with both the physical infrastructure and policy know-how to process thousands of court orders and subpoenas - is typical of the new breed of CALEA-related services that are springing up to meet a perceived need for quick and fed-friendly surveillance on digital networks.
What makes CALEA particularly ripe for profit is the law's stipulation that networks must be built with backdoors that meet exacting federal specifications. Experts estimate that CALEA compliance has cost three to five billion dollars since the law's passage in 1994, and if the FBI gets its wish this figure will balloon again as cable companies and DSL carriers scramble to comply. Although the comment period on the FCC petition has just begun, VeriSign is already trumpeting deals with large cable companies that want to stay ahead of the compliance curve. On Monday VeriSign announced a deal with Cox Communications to help with wiretaps on some of the cable company's 6.6 million customers.
John Morris, an attorney with the Center for Democracy and Technology, worries that the FBI's petition will mean that "any new technology that might substitute for phone calls needs to be cleared and approved by the FBI before it can be deployed." These new technologies include VOIP and IM, which are often difficult to wiretap. Former federal agents like Warren will have a leg up on the competition in a tech marketplace regulated by law enforcement's needs.
So will large companies like Cisco and VeriSign, who are already marketing CALEA-compliant "solutions" for broadband carriers. Cisco spokesperson John Earnhardt said the company is merely "reviewing and watching" developments with the FCC petition, but the company already sells a product called BLISS for cable VoIP that includes an optional "CALEA server." A Cisco Web page devoted to lawful intercept issues lists California-based SS8 Networks as one of Cisco's "preferred mediation device equipment suppliers." Manufacturer of the CALEAserver product, SS8 is also partnered with Fiducianet, who uses SS8's Xcipio intercept technology to help bring broadband carriers into compliance with a law that isn't yet applicable to them.
"Heightened Awareness" Boosting Sales
But how can Cisco sell CALEA compliance to cable companies when CALEA doesn't yet cover them? They're following the lead of CableLabs, a standards-setting body which has been working for several years on its PacketCable initiative, which defines standards for device interoperability in regards to communications services delivered using IP. PacketCable also includes an Electronic Surveillance Specification, which includes data on CALEA compliance. Although not yet adopted by the federal government, this spec is being used by companies who want to sell broadband products that are as close to being "CALEA compliant" as possible.
VeriSign's NetDiscovery service allows carriers to outsource the processing of all court order requests simply by establishing what the company calls a "secure" connection to its servers. Raj Puri, VeriSign VP of Communications Services, said, "This is a natural extension of our services as a provider for multiple wireline and cable providers. We have the infrastructure in our network that providers need to be compliant [with CALEA]." And, he added, "We are involved with standards-making and the FCC. So we've got a full solution for providers."
In 2002, VeriSign partnered with a company called Verint on NetDiscovery. Verint markets devices like STAR-GATE and RELIANT, both of which are designed specifically to assist with the lawful interception of data from broadband providers as well as telecoms. As VeriSign goes full-bore into the CALEA compliance market, Verint stands to do well with this partnership.
And there's no doubt that the current furor over CALEA is bringing in new customers for companies like VeriSign, as well as its partners and competitors. "This FCC thing has heightened awareness. We have seen our sales activity increase over the past several months," VeriSign's Puri reported. Fiducianet's Warren has seen a similar trend. "[The FBI petition] has brought a lot of attention to this issue which helps our business," he said. "Carriers look at whether they're compliant and then they turn to vendors [like us] to get it done efficiently."
What the broadband surveillance business boom makes clear is that the FCC doesn't need to approve the FBI's petition for CALEA to begin affecting broadband carriers. Corporate interests are already making the FBI's wishes come true.
Warren explained that his days with the FBI make him certain that the Bureau doesn't really think the FCC will give them what they want in their petition. Instead, he believes the FBI is angling to make their case before Congress next year, when the sunset provisions on the Patriot Act go into effect. "If Bush is re-elected, Congress will be primed for this," he said. "Expectations for privacy are being lowered right now. They'll have law enforcement behind them, and with congressmen and senators up for re-election, they'll feel pressured to have this in place to make up for what they'll lose when the sunset provisions go into effect. But," he added, "if Bush is defeated, this could go south."
Annalee Newitz is a writer in San Francisco who lives at www.techsploitation.com.