The increasing popularity of placing phone calls through the Internet has led the FBI to seek approval for measures that would safeguard the services from becoming a means for criminals to communicate freely.
The FBI is asking the Federal Communications Commission to affirm that Internet phone services fall under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which would require the providers to build surveillance capabilities into the services.
Another of the bureau’s requests is for the industry to create a technical standard that would make wiretapping the services simpler and less costly.
In opposition to the FBI’s requests are privacy advocates who fear opening the services for wiretapping could mix up data signals to include other transmissions, such as e-mails or Web traffic.
Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, allows phone calls to be broken down into data packets that can be sent over the Internet.
The packets are transferred from the host’s PC and reassembled when they reach their destination.
Applying this surveillance technology will prove difficult for the FBI because the act only required monitoring capabilities to be implemented into then-emerging digital phone technologies. When lawmakers put the act into effect, they exempted the Internet because it was considered solely an information service.
Adding to the FBI’s problems is the fact that VoIP is a relatively new technology, which does not yet have an agreed- upon standard.
This complicates efforts to set a standard for wiretapping because developers would have a difficult time combining all the current means into one.
Nevertheless, several groups, including the Telecommunications Industry Association, are currently working on VoIP surveillance standard.
Before an agreement can be reached, the question of who will pay for the cost of implementing this technology must be answered.
Some critics of the FBI’s involvement say the authorities should provide and pay for such capabilities on a case-by-case basis.
VoIP service providers, such as Vonage and Net2Phone, say they are currently developing a means by which to apply surveillance technology.
These companies say that even though they are developing the capabilities, they don’t feel they are under any legal obligation to do so.
Whether or not the government funds the technology, the consumer will eventually pay for the cost of applying the measures.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the manner in which government officials have attempted to collect information has changed. These actions by the FBI may be a signal of the government’s need to keep the lines of intelligence open on all fronts.