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Regulation

Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype?

VOIP industry sources say there's a very real possibility that the Department of Justice will convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to extend wiretapping rules to all VOIP services, including peer-to-peer communications.

If you're Niklas Zennstrom, founder of Skype Technologies SA, such news might put you off your danish and cappuccino.

The FCC specified in an August 5 release that VOIP providers that interconnect with the PSTN must facilitate wire taps within 18 months of the release of the order (see FCC Requires VOIP E911). So at least the PSTN-connected “SkypeOut” portion of Skype’s business appears to be on the hook for compliance under the CALEA laws.

But the DOJ wants more. The Department of Justice's response to the FCC's August 5 announcement, it cheered the commission for progress made, but said, in effect, the work is not yet done (see The FCC Plays Musical Chairs).

The FCC's official order will arrive this month, sources say, and it will likely put more color around the new CALEA rules. But the Commission too seems to acknowledge that the issue is not yet settled. On the same day the new order was announced, it issued another notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) asking for a new round of comments on CALEA.

Meanwhile, law enforcement remains in “almost daily” conversation with the commission, according to FCC media relations director David Fiske.

The DOJ’s point person for CALEA, Laura Parsky, has implied that wire-tapping VOIP is crucial to national security. Parsky said as much in a Congressional hearing that explored the idea that VOIP providers must be connected to the PSTN in order to be subject to CALEA:

Limiting law enforcement's ability to obtain assistance from a provider to only a particular type of wires (the PSTN), never mind one that is quickly being overtaken by new innovations, can significantly diminish law enforcement's ability to protect public safety and national security.


Parsky declined comment on this story, but spokesman Bryan Sierra says the DOJ has “unfinished business” with the FCC on CALEA (see VOIP Fans Raise Regulatory Issues).

“I believe that the FBI and DOJ want to extend CALEA as far as possible,” says Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The DOJ's intentions are ambitious, but not surprising. By making "interconnection with the PSTN" the qualifier for being subject to wiretapping rules, the Commission seems to have drawn a somewhat arbitrary line in the sand. If anything, tech-savvy bad guys would probably avoid such public modes of communication.

Skype argues to the FCC that it facilitates peer-to-peer communications, but does not employ switches and other network equipment to actually transport call traffic. Skype says it merely facilitates VOIP calls, but does not have access to them.

The company also says it would have to re-architect its entire model in order to comply with CALEA, but declined comment on the costs of such an undertaking (see Nuvio Appeals FCC Order).

Complete CALEA compliance might do to Skype what viruses and copyright lawsuits did to KaZaa. If Skype refuses to bring its systems into compliance, calls to or from the US -- and the revenues they bring to Skype -- could cease (see Acme Packet Supports CALEA).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, together with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and others are preparing for a possible legal challenge to the new CALEA rules after the order comes out (see Citron: Some Bills Are 'Weirdly Weird' ).

The whole process of updating CALEA rules started in 2004 with a joint petition from the DOJ, FBI, and DEA. Collectively, law enforcement feared that its monitoring capabilities were being outpaced by new technologies like VOIP.

Congress originally enacted CALEA, or the "Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act," in October 1994. The law defines the obligations of telecommunications carriers to assist law enforcement in executing electronic surveillance "pursuant to court order or other lawful authorization."

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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lightpimp 12/5/2012 | 3:04:16 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype? My understanding is that Skype does not have any operations or server equipment based within the US correct? If so, how would the FCC enforce any order upon these guys if they only have a virtual presense within the US? If they have PSTN interconnects in the US then of course the FCC has some leverage with enforcing the order.
paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 3:04:16 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype?
Skype may or may not have to do anything but they hardly hold exclusivity on P2P VoIP. People do it all the time in gaming. Check out programs like Teamspeak. Seems like fighting a losing battle when Tony Soprano hosts his own Teamspeak server.

seven
ed_eds 12/5/2012 | 3:04:15 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype? What really kill Skype voip is the the fact that the FCC is going to try and charge all phone users a Universal Service Fund charge of 2.00 to 4.00 per phone number. That means that if you want a SkypeOut services with an inbound phone number it is going to get taxed for USF.

Sooner or later the government always comes in and wrecks a good thing. This new FCC chairman is so Pro ILEC that all the next gen VoIP carriers are going to get squeezed.

I am interested to see how Yahoo, Google and others escape the TAX bogeyman.

E.
spelurker 12/5/2012 | 3:04:15 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype? >My understanding is that Skype does not have any operations
> or server equipment based within the US correct?
I don't know

> If so, how would the FCC enforce any order upon these guys if they
> only have a virtual presense within the US? If they have PSTN interconnects
> in the US then of course the FCC has some leverage with
> enforcing the order.
Well, the FCC regulates the bandwidth in the US, so if the service is provided to Americans within the US, using networks in the US, then FCC has the appropriate jurisdiction. Enforcing its will is more difficult, if there is no physical facility to shut down. I know of no means for the FCC to filter commercial internet traffic, leaving them with only the ability to freeze financial assets.
dljvjbsl 12/5/2012 | 3:04:14 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype? To overcome NAT and firewall issues, Skype uses packet forwarders in the network like most if not all other VoIP providers. Skype apparentlly uses user computers for this purpose.

There is no reason that Skype could also not use a computer locaed in the basement of a police building (say FBI headquarters) for this purpose. So if Skype gets a court order for a wiretap, all it has to do is to ensure that all calls from that client are forwarded through this police computer.

No fuss, no muss.

Why would Skype object to obeying a court order?

Other telephone companies obey the law. Why would Skype or ony other VoIP compnay refuse?
rwelbourn 12/5/2012 | 3:04:11 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype? I was under the impression that Skype uses end-to-end encryption, so that a packet forwarder, even under FBI control, would do no good. (Unless of course a backdoor has been built into the system somewhere, which may be possible, given that Skype is closed source.)

Indeed, the packet forwarders that Skype uses are in fact peer computers, presumably the ones that aren't stuck behind NAT boxes, so they really do not have control over much of the infrastructure.

The genie appears to be out of the bottle.

(Aside: in order to get the service started, one presumes that Skype seeded the network with peers on accessible, public IP addresses; but once there are enough non-NATted peers in the network, the system will become self-sustaining. Of course, if world+dog all turn on firewalls or start using NAT boxes, that may bugger things up...)

Rob
dljvjbsl 12/5/2012 | 3:04:10 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype? I was under the impression that Skype uses end-to-end encryption, so that a packet forwarder, even under FBI control, would do no good. (Unless of course a backdoor has been built into the system somewhere, which may be possible, given that Skype is closed source.)

Who arranges for the clients to find each other and exchange security information?

The answer is Skype. (or any other VoIP provider)

Does the phrase "man in the middle attack" sound applicable?

The packet forwarder in the basement of the FBI building would encrypt/decrypt for both sides and forward decrypted packets wherever it wished.
optical_man 12/5/2012 | 3:04:09 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype? FCC wrecks Skype in USA.
So what.
USA is so far behind in broadband apps that no one cares anymore.
Skype is for Earth. USA is one Country, behind the times, that is being left behind.
Again, how do USA regulations affect a Global Business?
They don't. You simply ignore USA as a market, like the rest of the broadband vendors are doing (not one of them has the phrase "we expect explosive growth for our X product in America").

The FCC in the USA answers to some pretty powerful people, who do not want the average person to enjoy what the average Korean does.

Ask yourself, "why?".
Simple:
$$, Legacy, 20 year Careers at 100 year old companies.
mr zippy 12/5/2012 | 3:04:09 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype? Again, how do USA regulations affect a Global Business?
They don't. You simply ignore USA as a market, like the rest of the broadband vendors are doing (not one of them has the phrase "we expect explosive growth for our X product in America").


I'm not sure. I'm in Australia, say I was to use Skype to talk to somebody in the UK. In theory I wouldn't be effected by any US FCC regs. However, if Skype are a US company (are they?), and the US government wanted to hear my converstation (cause they think I might be due for a visit to Gitmo), could they ask Skype to relay my phone call via a "super node" in the US, and the legally and legitimately record my converstation ?

Alternatively, if they think I'm due for a visit to Gitmo, would the legallity of doing so be something they could ignore, as I'm not a US citizen, and neither is the person I'm talking too ?
dljvjbsl 12/5/2012 | 3:04:08 AM
re: Could Wiretap Regs Stunt Skype?
the best thing to do is just ignore the US market.


Engineer to CEO: Sir, we should stick to our principles and ignore the largest and richest market in the world

Engineer to CEO: Before I leave, can I clean out my desk?
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