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Optical/IP

VOIP Carriers Calculate Tap Tariff

Could future law enforcement requirements put an end to cheap and easy VOIP service?

The question hangs in the air as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) drafts rules to make it easier for the government to "wiretap" VOIP phone calls. VOIP providers now wonder whether they’ll have to make expensive changes to their systems. Meanwhile, public interest groups worry the new rules could inhibit Internet innovation and encroach on consumer privacy rights.

Until the FCC explains itself a bit more, however, most carriers won't lift a finger. “For now, we’ll just have to wait and see. We may already be in compliance with the new CALEA [Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act] -- we just don’t know,” says Michael McKeehan, director of technology policy at Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ).

The FCC concluded last week that VOIP providers should be subjected to CALEA -- the law that has forced traditional telephone carriers to redesign their systems to make it easier for the police to eavesdrop on suspected criminals. CALEA, passed by Congress in 1994, also forced the telecommunications companies to pay for the restructuring.

In its 96-page notice of proposed rulemaking released Monday, the FCC suggests that VOIP providers would bear any costs for the surveillance equipment. Those costs could be passed onto consumers at a time when VOIP phone services are wooing customers based on price by charging between $20 and $30 a month for unlimited calls.

VOIP providers have argued that CALEA should not apply to them. They claim the law was only for telecommunications companies, not information providers (see FCC Rules on VOIP – Sort Of). They question the FCC’s authority to make a decision without input from Congress and worry whether government agencies, misunderstanding the Internet, will force arduous requirements on their systems.

“We are concerned there will be a narrow set of requirements put on VOIP that will constrain technology development,” says John Morris, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “The FBI imposed a specific design mandate on the telephone companies. But the notion of the Internet is not well suited to this type of mandate.”

Currently, VOIP providers are legally required to assist cops with warrants in carrying out surveillance. Most providers, including Verizon, AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T), 8x8 Inc. (Nasdaq: EGHT), and Vonage Holdings Corp., say they already comply with wiretap subpoenas.

“The big issue that is facing everyone with CALEA is: Is it possible to have a standard way to do this with all the new technologies out there and new technologies that are going to appear? I don’t think so,” says 8x8 CEO Bryan Martin.

To accomplish VOIP eavesdropping, providers need to isolate data streams within their networks, copy that data stream, and then forward it securely to authorities in real-time. Because Internet phone services send out data packets that look like the packets for other communications such as email, the FBI cannot currently identify and break down the caller information it wants.

“For the wireline industry, there is a technical solution that is an off-the-shelf solution, which operators can purchase from several companies,” says Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schulz. “The problem with just purchasing and using these same solutions for VOIP is that VOIP networks vary widely in their architecture, so what will work for Vonage may not work for Packet 8 or AT&T.”

While developing rules, the FCC will determine whether third-party vendors, such as VeriSign Inc. (Nasdaq: VRSN) or Fiducianet Inc., can ease financial and technological burdens by helping collect data, extracting relevant information, and sending it to the cops.

“It’s a cost factor. Some VOIP providers are looking to third parties to avoid the cost of building the infrastructure,” says Fiducianet’s CEO Michael Warren, a retired FBI agent who led the Bureau’s CALEA implementation.

The catch? Public interest groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), warn that data is more vulnerable to interception when traveling from a service provider’s network to a third party.

Industry experts will have a chance to voice opinions when the FCC’s 75-day public comment period begins in about two weeks.

Many have already vented their spleens on this subject in March, when the FBI, the Justice Department, and the Drug Enforcement Administration filed a petition asking for greater surveillance access to Internet phone systems.

In that petition, the agencies 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 FCC will not subject instant messaging or peer-to-peer applications such as Skype to the new rules, but many worry these services could soon fall under the scope of regulations.

“Right now, a VOIP provider is free to do whatever it wants with its network,” says EFF senior staff attorney Lee Tien. "Once CALEA applies, that won’t be true. They’ll have to take into account what the FBI wants."

— Joanna Sabatini, special to Light Reading

IPee 12/5/2012 | 1:22:41 AM
re: VOIP Carriers Calculate Tap Tariff > For the wireline industry, there is a technical solution that is an off-the-shelf solution, which operators can purchase from several companies,Gǥ says Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Schulz. GǣThe problem with just purchasing and using these same solutions for VOIP is that VOIP networks vary widely in their architecture, so what will work for Vonage may not work for Packet 8 or AT&T.Gǥ

I don't find that statement even close to accurate. I am not aware of an off the shelf system that works with all class 5 switches unless it is based on the analog part of the loop but now solutions are on the digital side.

I think the problem is that Vonage wants to provide very simple packet replication and CALEA is much more complicated than that.
PO 12/5/2012 | 1:22:40 AM
re: VOIP Carriers Calculate Tap Tariff "Because Internet phone services send out data packets that look like the packets for other communications such as email, the FBI cannot currently identify and break down the caller information it wants."

Goodness. If this were really true, the receiver couldn't separate the packets either.

The major carriers monitor individual traffic flows on their backbone for application, volume, duration and other dimensions. They know how much of their traffic is email, and how much is RTP-over-UDP. I don't believe the problem is in differentiating one flow from another.

A bigger problem is that capturing and correlating the session initiation with the session itself can be difficult, and that the smaller players don't really want to bother doing the monitoring near the edge.
mr zippy 12/5/2012 | 1:22:38 AM
re: VOIP Carriers Calculate Tap Tariff Crypto will put an end to any application recognition on the network, and it's part of IPv6. Goodbye firewalls, proxy servers, P2P analysers and CALEA taps.

The FCC will not subject instant messaging or peer-to-peer applications such as Skype to the new rules, but many worry these services could soon fall under the scope of regulations.

When (if) that happens, I don't know how they'll cope with all the data they're recording. If these "applications" fall under that scope, then so does telnet, FTP, HTTP, SMTP, etc., etc., etc.

Paraphrasing what somebody famously said, it'll be like trying to take a drink of water from a firehose.

Good luck to them, I think they'll need it.
PO 12/5/2012 | 1:22:33 AM
re: VOIP Carriers Calculate Tap Tariff "Crypto will put an end to any application recognition on the network, and it's part of IPv6. Goodbye firewalls, proxy servers, P2P analysers and CALEA taps."

If users, in their naivete, take steps to restrict the carriers' capability to do proper and full TE (which requires an understanding of the delay and loss tolerance of the underlying traffic at congestion points), then those services might suffer commercially.

And while you or I would have difficulty listening in, I suspect Law Enforcement can bring more resources to bear as necessary.
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