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Net phone service worries FBI Law; could prevent tracking of criminals

Wed, 07/30/2003 - 8:00pm
Staff

Copyright 2003 Gannett Company, Inc.

USA TODAY

July 31, 2003, Thursday, FIRST EDITION

With the spread of Internet phone calling, the FBI worries that federal plans to deregulate broadband will hamper its ability to track criminals and terrorists.

The concern stems from: the increasingly blurry line between data and voice traffic, the Federal Communications Commission's desire to keep broadband free of regulation and the wording of a federal law.

That law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), requires "telecommunications" carriers' networks to be easily wiretapped by authorities. But it exempts "information services."

Last year, the FCC tentatively ruled that the broadband offerings of phone and cable companies are information — not telecommunications — services.

The rationale is that they mainly involve storing and generating data rather than transmitting it. The ruling is expected to lead to a final FCC ruling this fall freeing cable and phone companies from obligations to open their networks to rival Internet service providers.

Currently, phone companies are bound by open-access and CALEA requirements, but cable firms are not. The FCC is expected to issue similar rules for both industries.

The FBI first raised concerns last year that such a ruling could hobble national security after the 2001 terrorist attacks. It said it must be able to monitor the e-mail, voice and other broadband transmissions of suspects.

The FCC, it said in a filing, could easily reconcile the competing interests by concluding that CALEA applies to the telecommunication component of broadband, but not to the information piece.

But in a filing this month, the FBI takes a different tack, focusing on the need to trace criminals' Internet voice calls, which may raise fewer concerns among privacy advocates than e-mail surveillance and have a stronger legal basis.

Low-cost Internet calling with regular phones has taken off the past year and is expected to explode to 4 million consumers in 2007 from 100,000 today.

Companies such as Vonage offer the service to broadband customers over the public Internet. And big cable companies are slowly rolling it out on private Internet-like networks.

"This trend offers increasing opportunities for terrorists, spies and criminals to evade lawful electronic surveillance," the FBI says in its filing, which followed meetings this month with FCC officials.

Even if the FCC rules broadband is not a telecom service, the FBI notes that CALEA applies to services that replace "a substantial portion" of phone services, such as broadband telephony.

That argument is resonating with at least some FCC officials.

Yet the issue is not clear-cut. Cable firms might have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make their networks CALEA-compliant, possibly slowing rollout of the voice service. Regulating broadband in any way is still considered heresy in Washington.

The issue also troubles privacy advocates.

"How, in the Internet context, do you separate out voice from everything else?," says David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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