U.S. regulators on Wednesday ruled tentatively in favor of an FBI and Justice
Department proposal that would 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 U.S. telephone networks,
allowing the FBI to start listening in on a target's phone calls within
minutes of receiving court approval. Last March, the Department of Justice,
the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration jointly petitioned
the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a ruling that cable modem
companies and other broadband providers are also covered by the law.
"Our support for law enforcement is unwavering," said FCC chairman
Michael Powell, reading from a statement at a public meeting of the commission
Wednesday. "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 5-0 ruling is open to public comment before it takes effect, and the
FCC is seeking guidance on some implementation details, including the issue
of how much time to allow service providers to wire their networks for spying.
Though the ruling was unanimous, two commissioners expressed concern that
the FCC's interpretation of the 1994 law was precarious, and might later
be overturned in the courts. "There are better was to build a system
that will encourage judicial approval," said commissioner Michael Copps."
As it is, the ruling is "too flush with tentative conclusions that
stretch the statutory framework almost to tear," Copps said.
The decision is a milestone for the Justice Department, which first began
lobbying for CALEA's application to the Internet over two years ago.
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 ease-of-use of the wiretapping infrastructure
that CALEA grafted onto the modern telephone network.
The EFF, ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center
for Democracy and Technology all filed comments opposing the plan, and an
ACLU letter-drive generated hundreds of mailings from citizens against what
the group called "the New Ashcroft Internet Snooping Request."
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