Internet Phone Wiretaps Draw Fire
A court ruling that gives authorities the ability to listen to Internet conversations has drawn fire from a group of technology heavyweights, who are arguing that enabling VoIP wiretaps not only poses risks to Internet security but also represents an invasion of privacy and will thwart innovation.
A report issued Tuesday by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) contends that VoIP wiretaps would require either reworking the Internet to enable accurate call intercepts or would introduce dangerous network security risks by adding a layer of technology that would create the ability to eavesdrop on other network services.
ITAA's study, coauthored by Internet pioneer Vint Cerf and Sun Microsystems' Chief Security Officer Whitfield Diffie, arrives on the heels of a decision delivered by the U.S. District Court in Washington stating that VoIP service providers must adhere to the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA).
That law, which requires phone companies to build wiretap access into their networks, was extended by the FCC last year to cover broadband Internet and VoIP services. The federal appeals court ruling delivered last week supports the FCC's conclusion, despite the service providers themselves arguing that VoIP is an information service and is fundamentally different from traditional telephone systems.
"CALEA has become an albatross around the neck of VoIP, and it could be costly for operations that, in order to comply, would have to install an intercept function on their systems, either by developing it themselves or buying new equipment," said Will Stofega, an IDC analyst.
Stofega pointed out that the courts have now decided that CALEA applies not just to VoIP but also to any communications conducted on IP networks. "The problem is that you have to make sure only the targeted packets of data on the networks are being intercepted," he said.
The ITAA study also notes that similar mandates could be applied to instant messaging, multiplayer online games, and other types of interactive Internet communications.
As electronic communication becomes more prevalent on a global scale, governments are seeking ways to use the technology to catch Internet criminals and terrorists. But such actions are forcing privacy watchdogs to be even more vigilant, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in a recent interview.
"We understand that governments need to prosecute cybercrime and to track terrorists," he said. "But there has to be a balance with protection of privacy and civil liberties."
In many items of proposed legislation, Rotenberg has seen only a nod toward privacy protection and a strong emphasis on giving law enforcement agencies more power.
"The big concern is how much authority we're giving to this small group of people," said Rotenberg. "We need to catch terrorists and cybercriminals, but there's a way to do that without stripping away individual protections."
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