Time recently published a very brief -- even glib -- article [subscription required] on the FBI's push to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to some Internet communications. The article is remarkably uncritical of law enforcement's claims, so we wrote a letter to the editor to give readers the whole story:
Your account of FBI efforts to embed wiretapping into the design of new Internet communication technologies ("Psst! The FBI is Having Trouble on the Line," Notebook, August 15) is in error.
You claim that police "can't tap into [Internet] conversations or identify the location of callers, even with court orders."
That is false. Internet service providers and VoIP companies have consistently responded to such orders and turned over information in their possession. There is no evidence that law enforcement is having any trouble obtaining compliance.
But more disturbingly, you omit entirely any reference to the grave threat these FBI initiatives pose to the personal privacy and security of innocent Americans. The technologies currently used to create wiretap-friendly computer networks make the people on those networks more pregnable to attackers who want to steal their data or personal information. And at a time when many of our most fundamental consititutional rights are being stripped away in the name of fighting terrorism, you implicitly endorse opening yet another channel for potential government abuse.
The legislative history of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) shows that Congress recognized the danger of giving law enforcement this kind of surveillance power "in the face of increasingly powerful and personally revealing technologies" (H.R. Rep. No. 103-827, 1994 U.S.C.C.A.N. 3489, 3493  [House Report]). The law explicitly exempts so-called information services; law enforcement repeatedly assured civil libertarians that the Internet would be excluded. Yet the FBI and FCC have now betrayed that promise and stepped beyond the law, demanding that Internet software be redesigned to facilitate eavesdropping. In the coming months, we expect the federal courts to rein in these dangerously expansive legal intepretations.