Could National Security Concerns Slow VoIP?

FEATURE The FBI's concern about wiretap capability of Internet telephony is complicating the FCC's desire to limit regulation of the technology.
Posted February 6, 2004

Roy Mark

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While Internet telephony has become a hot topic in Washington over the last two months, the FBI has had the technology in its sights for more than a year. It doesn't like what it sees, or more to the point, what it can't hear.

The agency's electronic surveillance experts worry that Voice over Internet Protocol technology will become the communications mode of choice for criminals and terrorists unless the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) steps in.

With regular phone calls, voice packet travels from one fixed point to another, making intercepting traffic fairly routine. VoIP calls, on the other hand, can travel several routes and even change direction as the network seeks the clearest path.

"The geo-location problem can't be taken for granted," Lee Tien, a senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights organization, told

The FBI's problem extends beyond the technology to the language of the law itself. In 1994, Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) requiring phone companies to make their networks, at their own expense, uniformly accessible to wiretaps.

CALEA created a vast electronic surveillance infrastructure allowing agencies, with a court order, to quickly, easily and inexpensively tap phone conversations. The law, however, never anticipated VoIP.

Because of this, there are conflicting elements, a high-ranking FCC official said. On one hand, CALEA exempts information services (such as ISPs), but on the other, it includes services that are substantially the same as phone service.

The FCC is expected to issue its first proposed rules next week to determine what, if any, telecom rules should apply to VoIP.

If the FCC determines Internet-based telephony is an information service not a telecommunications carrier, the emerging technology would be free of many of myriad rules and regulations, including wiretap requirements, governing traditional telephone companies.

While VoIP technology clearly provides phone service, it does it by turning voice packets into data packets and does so over the virtually unregulated Internet instead of the heavily regulated public switched voice telephone networks (PSTN).

The VoIP industry claims it is not a telecom carrier since it does not deal in voice traffic and should not be subject to the usual taxes and regulations, including CALEA.

VoIP providers must walk a fine PR line . . . see page 2

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