FCC CALEA Order Challenges Continue

by Roy Mark

Electronic Frontier Foundation latest to say they will fight extension of wiretaps to Internet broadband providers.

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) decision to expand wiretap accessibility requirements to broadband providers and Internet telephone companies continued to come under legal fire today.

Fewer than 24 hours after the Center for Democracy and Technology announced it plans to challenge the FCC's ruling, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said it has similar intentions.

Both organizations question the FCC's legal authority to extend the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to the Internet. CALEA requires all telephone companies to build surveillance backdoors into their networks, but specifically exempts information services, such as cable modem and DSL services.

Passed in 1994 before lawmakers anticipated telephone services delivered over the Internet, the FCC used CALEA to satisfy new Department of Justice concerns that terrorists and other criminals will use Voice over IP networks to avoid detection.

"We conclude that [CALEA] applies to facilities-based broadband Internet access providers and providers of [VoIP]," the FCC order states. "This order is the first critical step to apply CALEA obligations to new technologies and services that are increasingly relied upon by the American public to meet their communications needs."

The EFF has argued against the expansion of CALEA to the Internet since the FCC began regulatory hearings on VoIP almost two years ago. According to the privacy advocacy group, the FCC is making it "easier for law enforcement to listen in on private communications."

EFF attorney Lee Tien said in a statement, "The FCC's overreach is an attempt to overrule Congress' decision to exclude 'information services.' By mandating backdoors in any service that has the capability to replace functions provided by a telephone, the FCC has stretched the statute to the breaking point."

According to the FCC, all VoIP communications on a given service must be wiretap-ready within 18 months if the VoIP service offers the capability for users to connect calls to the public switched telephone network (PSTN). This even applies to those communications that do not involve the PSTN.

The EFF said the practical effect of the new FCC rules means broadband providers and companies that manufacture equipment for broadband communications will be required to redesign their products to meet government requirements.

"A tech mandate requiring backdoors in the Internet endangers the privacy of innocent people, stifles innovation, and risks the Internet as a forum for free and open expression," Kurt Opsahl, an EFF staff attorney, said in a statement.

In issuing its unanimous CALEA order last weekend, FCC Commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Michael Copps also anticipated the pending legal action.

"Because litigation is as inevitable as death and taxes, and because some might not read the statute to permit the extension of CALEA to the broadband Internet access and VoIP services at issue here, I have stated my concern that an approach like the one we adopt today is not without legal risk," wrote Abernathy.

Democrat Michael Copps added, "Though I approve today's decision, I continue to note that it is built on very complicated legal ground. The statute is undeniably stretched to recognize new service technologies and pushed very hard to accommodate new and emerging telecommunications platforms."

This article was originally published on Wednesday Sep 28th 2005