Jewish World Review

FBI, companies battling over technology used in wiretapping | (KRT) The FBI already can intercept phone lines, e-mails and instant messaging with ease.

Now it's fighting for even faster and easier access. The bureau and other law enforcement agencies are in a battle with the companies that transmit the e-mails, phone calls and instant messages.

Police would still need a court order to tap phone or computer lines, and that likely won't change.

The current battle is over whether the FBI will dictate the technology to eavesdrop on Internet communications. Also at stake: whether you will pay more to use the Internet.

This month, the FBI unveiled a plan to require all U.S. broadband providers, including cable and DSL companies, to rewire their Internet networks to make it easier for police agencies to intercept messages.

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The eavesdropping technology plan is on a fast track.

Within hours of receiving the proposal on March 12, the Federal Communications Commission announced that the public had 30 days to send in comments before the commission takes up the plan. A vote is expected this summer and final action is possible by next year.

Lining up against it are many communications companies and privacy and technology organizations. They assert that the proposal would greatly expand the FBI's wiretapping abilities, stifle innovations in Internet technology and cost billions of dollars that Internet providers would pass on to consumers.

The FBI responds that its plan is "frequently misunderstood."

The government's ability to stop terrorism "is significantly dependent upon our ability to intercept communications," says Greg Motta, an FBI associate general counsel.

"At a time when our country is debating, `Did our intelligence-gathering agencies fail us in 9-11?' the FBI is saying that if we do not resolve this problem, we cannot do an adequate job to protect the American people," Motta warns.

To answer critics, the bureau has set up a Web site (, where it denies that its plan includes making it easier for police to monitor e-mail.

The critics aren't buying it.

"There's no doubt they are asking for access to e-mail," says Stewart Baker, an attorney who has analyzed the FBI's proposal. "This is a very big deal," adds Baker, a former general counsel for the National Security Agency who now represents broadband companies.

In St. Louis, the largest broadband companies are SBC and Charter Communications. They say they are still trying to figure out what the FBI's plan would cost them. The companies say they protect customer privacy but cooperate with court-ordered wiretapping.

In St. Charles County, Charter offers telephone service through the Internet - Charter Telephone Service, starting at $10.95 per month. Charter says those phone lines already are accessible to court-approved wiretapping by the government.

For its part, SBC says it has complied with at least one federal court order to permit monitoring of e-mail over its DSL network. SBC wouldn't elaborate.

The Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration back the FBI plan. And FCC Chairman Michael Powell seems sympathetic.

Wiretapping is not a new practice; the FBI says it simply wants to update that tool for today's Internet technology.

"Wiretap evidence historically has been extremely fruitful," says Steve Higgins, a former U.S. attorney in St. Louis under the first President Bush. Higgins says that if the FBI's technology plan prevails, "I believe the safeguards are in place to guard against undue invasion of authority."

Ed Dowd, U.S. attorney here under former President Clinton, says the law requiring a judge to find "probable cause" protects against unlawful wiretaps.

The FBI says it isn't proposing any change in legal safeguards.

The FBI, with court approval, already can intercept e-mail and other broadband communications such as instant messaging and phone calls via computer. Indeed, some technology experts say that since the bureau already can intercept messages, why require cable and DSL companies to spend huge sums to get messages that already are gettable?

The bureau says that with current technology, broadband companies can't always respond quickly enough to intercept messages. The bureau's plan would require that all broadband companies - cable and DSL firms that provide fast Internet service - be ready in advance when the government wants to tap a phone on one of the growing number of broadband telephone networks such as Charter's in St. Charles County.

Not so fast, the critics say: The FBI really wants the industry to spend a lot of money so that the bureau can continue intercepting communications in the same old way it has for years.

"The FBI doesn't want anything to change," says John Morris of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit civil liberties group in Washington. "They want anything that happens over the Internet to be made to look like an old-style phone call, even though it's not an old-style phone call."

Morris says the FBI also wants prior approval over any new broadband communications technology. "And the FBI will only approve things that comply with the FBI's archaic notion of what interception should be.

"Two things will happen," Morris argues. "Internet innovation in the U.S. will simply stop. And what innovation does continue will move overseas."

The FBI insists its plan will have "minimal impact" on future technology.

As to the cost, broadband companies say they shouldn't have to shoulder the enormous price of the government's wiretapping.

In the past, police paid phone companies relatively little for wiretapping accessibility. Some companies now want to charge for their full cost to buy equipment to permit government wiretaps. That rankles the FBI.

The companies say the cost to them - and their customers - would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars - and possibly billions. The cost includes filters that would prevent police from intercepting communications from innocent parties along with those they scoop up from suspects.

"If the government wants it done, the government should pay for it," former U.S. Attorney Dowd says of the eavesdropping technology proposal.

That's not what the government has in mind.

The FBI's Motta says you will pay whether it's through taxes or Internet charges: "We get our money from taxes," he says. "It's not like we can get our money from anybody other than consumers anyway."

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© 2004, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services