Digital message taps gain interest of FBI

Wiretapping instant messages, Internet calls and other digital communication methods could soon be a reality due to a petition submitted by the FBI Friday.

FBI officials stepped up their efforts to help ease the process of wiretapping digital media by issuing a petition to the Federal Communications Commission that would allow them to bring these technologies under the coverage of a 1994 wiretapping act.

According to the FBI, there is a real need for its surveillance powers to be extended.

“The importance and the urgency of this task cannot be overstated,” the petition said. “The ability of federal, state and local law enforcement to carry out critical electronic surveillance is being compromised today by providers who have failed to implement CALEA-compliant intercept capabilities.”

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) gives the federal government a better way of defining laws governing wiretapping procedures. Law enforcement officials received a better opportunity to tap emerging technologies at the time, such as call forwarding, call waiting and cellular phones.

Although the FBI has been given substantial leeway by the government to define which technologies would fall under the act, it has thus far required only traditional analog and digital phone services to comply.

According to the petition, FBI officials are trying to clarify what newer technologies apply to the CALEA.

“The Commission and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit have made clear that CALEA is applicable not only to entities and services that employ traditional circuit-mode technology, but also to entities and services that employ packet-mode technology — technology in which the transmission or messages are divided into packets before they are sent, transmitted individually and recompiled into the original message once all of the packets arrive at their destination,” the petition said.

Examples of pack-mode technology in use are programs that utilize the Internet to transfer data, such as instant messaging or telephony.

A problem that arises from this gray area in the definition of coverage is that some telecommunications companies say their services or products do not apply to the act, the petition stated.

Among the other technologies that the FBI wanted to cover are Internet telephony and cable Internet service, which do not feature any universal or established virtual “backdoor” for the FBI to use for surveillance.

In regards to Internet telephony, the FBI has an issue with the fact that most services use an encryption method for transferring calls that renders the FBI’s system for monitoring conversations virtually inoperable.

These systems are also built into various instant messaging programs, including AOL’s instant messenger service. This ruling could also impact other services that utilize Internet telephony, such as Microsoft’s Xbox Live.

FBI officials say the changes are necessary in order to head off suspected terrorists and other suspects from using the digital services to circumvent traditional wiretapping means.

In addition to tapping these services, the FBI also asked for cable Internet providers to find a way to standardize the method of wiretapping.

On the other side of the broadband spectrum, DSL Internet providers have already been cooperating with law enforcement officials because their technology operates using standard phone lines.

The additional burden on companies could lead to increased spending due to the implementation. This could turn out to be one of the biggest problems facing telecommunications providers in this process because the CALEA requires companies to pay all costs pertaining to the conversion of their services.

This could put cable companies at a disadvantage to DSL providers because they would have to spend extra money in order to get their technologies up to code.

In addition, the FBI’s petition also stated that the FCC should help companies establish the methods for passing this cost onto consumers. This increase in price could have more far-reaching effects, as other technologies, such as push-to-talk phones, would also be covered.

Requiring companies to add the abilities to their programs could stifle other products and services that were coming into the market because developers may not have the financial means to meet the requirements. It could lead to some programs not even being released.

This is due to the requirement that companies that released telecommunication programs that did not have the backdoors built into them would be illegal and its creators would be given 15 months to comply.

Although this proposal is only a suggestive message, the Bush administration has voiced interest in the plan, so it will probably have the direct attention of the FCC. In the past, the administration has passed the Patriot Act, which extended the surveillance capabilities of the law-enforcement community.

No matter what happens, the main point is that the idea has been put forth by the FBI and will probably lead to increased discussion among various government agencies. It may only be a matter of time before the FBI has the jurisdiction to wiretap digital media.