Optical/IP Networks

FBI Protests VOIP Approach

This one should provide conspiracy theorists with some good fodder: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FBI are in the early stages of a clash on VOIP regulation.

The FCC has made its position clear, indicating that it would like to avoid over-regulating the VOIP industry where possible. The FBI however, has other ideas. According to a submission to the FCC, it would like to see VOIP classed as a telecommunications service and regulated as such, no question about it (see FCC's Powell: Let VOIP Be).

The FBI voiced its position in comments filed jointly with the Justice Department to the FCC. At its VOIP Forum last month, the FCC invited anyone with an interest in VOIP to submit comments and suggestions on how VOIP services might be regulated. The FCC has received over 60 separate submissions from corporations, government agencies, and individuals commenting on its highly anticipated VOIP Order. For a complete list of the submissions click here.

There are many reasons why the feds are concerned about VOIP, but most of all they want to retain the ability to tap phone conversations in investigations. Internet-based phone calls can be encrypted, making them much harder to be tapped than traditional circuit-switched calls.

The Justice Department and the FBI are concerned that VOIP services are being used by criminals and terrorists as a secure form of communications. Traditional telephone companies must adhere to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) by making their networks wiretap friendly. But since VOIP providers exist in a regulatory gray area, CALEA does not, so far, apply to these services. The FBI is actively lobbying the FCC to make this happen.

The Justice Department and FBI submission states: “As a matter of public policy, CALEA is vital to national security, law enforcement, and public safety. Such a critically important statute should not be left to mere voluntary efforts.”

The document continues: “VOIP providers may unintentionally benefit from half-hearted CALEA implementation because terrorists, spies, and criminals typically flock to the modes of communication most likely to evade lawful electronic surveillance. Therefore, the Commission must adopt VOIP-specific CALEA rules that are rigorous enough to ensure that this does not occur.”

The FCC says it takes all submissions seriously and will review what the Justice Department has to say. “Obviously, when we are dealing with national security issues they will be studied for their implications,” says Michael Balmoris, an FCC spokesman.

The FBI isn’t stopping at the FCC. It’s also working closely with hardware manufacturers to make their products surveillance friendly. MetaSwitch and Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) have developed backdoor technology in their VOIP products that enables the FBI to eavesdrop at will.

CALEA regulation for VOIP is just around the corner, reckons Andy Randall, general manager at Metaswitch. “As soon as they find a criminal using one of these networks to evade existing CALEA rules that’s all the ammo they need," he says.

Jim Harper, founder of Privacilla.org, a privacy advocacy Website says that’s not what is happening. “The law enforcement cart is coming before the civil society horse. The communications infrastructure is being created with eavesdropping in mind before there is any evidence of it, plus with VOIP it won’t work anyway as the criminals will use offshore VOIP or open source VOIP, rather than Vonage or any of the major carriers.”

That said, the Justice Department is one of the best lobbying organizations in country and agencies like the FCC will take them very seriously, Harper says.

The latest Light Reading Insider takes a look at the FCC VOIP Order among other issues, and indicates that firm decisions won't be coming any time soon. “Insiders argue that the issue is too complex for resolution in 2004 and that the FCC historically doesn’t undertake major policy initiatives in a presidential election year,” the report says. For a closer look on the FCC regulatory environment in 2004 click here.

— Jo Maitland, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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