RealNews

These Are Not Your Father's Wiretaps

Privacy advocates fear that the FBI’s need to monitor Internet Age technologies, such as voice over IP, will give it far too sweeping powers. In the old days, tapping a phone was as easy as one-two-three. All calls ran over Ma Bell’s copper wires. To listen in, law-enforcement agents simply requested that the phone company isolate the suspect’s wire and record any calls made or received. One phone company. One network. One flip of a switch. That was eons ago by techno-standards, however. The new world of telecommunications has made it much harder for the FBI to thwart evildoers — and for privacy advocates to ensure that the agency doesn’t overstep its bounds. Today, dozens of new technologies need to be monitored, such as packet voice and cellular text messaging. And thousands of new service providers are now in business. “Every time the technology moves ahead, you have all these pitfalls — all these potential points where we can creep away from the status quo to a far more intrusive type of surveillance,” says Lee Tien, a senior attorney at San Francisco-based advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The job of sorting out the mess falls in large part to Les Szwajkowski, the director of the FBI’s CALEA surveillance policy and planning unit. (CALEA is an acronym for Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which was passed in 1994 and granted the FBI the right to conduct surveillance on any new technologies that arise.) With his staff of 50 engineers, lawyers, and surveillance experts, Szwajkowski’s most pressing task is finding a way to tackle the challenge of packetized voice, better known as VOIP (for voice over Internet protocol), which is steadily gaining a foothold in the U.S. market. VOIP provider Vonage in Edison, N.J., alone has lured 15,000 customers since it launched in April, 2002. Full Story

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