Expanded Powers for Law Enforcement Are Dangerously Vague, Invasive

Earlier this week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) objecting to the agency's plan to expand the reach of a law that forces communications service providers to build surveillance backdoors into their networks.

The Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), passed in 1994, forced telephone companies to redesign their network architectures to make wiretapping easier. It expressly did not regulate data traveling over the Internet. But earlier this year, law enforcement agencies petitioned the FCC to expand CALEA's reach to cover broadband providers so that it would be easier for law enforcement to tap Internet "phone calls" via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications such as Vonage, as well as online "conversations" using various kinds of instant messaging (IM) programs like AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). The FCC responded with a "notice of proposed rulemaking" (NPRM), which proposes to introduce surveillance technology mandates to broadband Internet access and "managed" VoIP.

In its comments, EFF argues that this transformation in CALEA goes against the letter and the spirit of the law as it was originally written, which expressly ruled out information services like broadband.

"The NPRM relegates Congress' exclusion of information services to so much spilt ink," read the comments. Moreover, EFF argues, the rationale that law enforcement uses to justify its request -- that broadband has "significantly replaced" the telephone network -- is a misrepresentation that opens the door for CALEA to cover just about anything. "Any service that arguably replaces any portion of the prior telephony regime must look down the barrel of CALEA compliance."

In addition, the technological changes required by an expanded CALEA would undermine Internet security and subject new technologies to government review before they can be adopted for use with current Internet devices.

"Law enforcement already has the legal and technological means to access communications on the Internet," said EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "Expanding CALEA to cover broadband communication is not only unnecessary, it will retard innovation while depriving people of their privacy and security on the Internet."

Reply comments are due December 7.


Kurt Opsahl
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

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