August 8, 2005 | By Donna Wentworth

The Mother of Acrimonious Acronyms

As Cardozo law professor Susan Crawford recently noted, there are a lot of "acrimonious acronyms" in the battle over the future of the Internet. One of the most dangerous: the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, better known as CALEA.

Back in the Clinton era, the FBI asked for a law to force all telecommunications companies to build backdoors into their networks for easy government spying. As part of the desperate Capitol Hill horse-trading before CALEA was passed, privacy advocates won a concession: the new law would not apply to providers of information services such as email and Internet access. But as of Friday, that's no longer the case. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued an advisory stating that it has granted the FBI's request to expand the scope of CALEA to include Internet broadband providers and certain Voice-over-IP (VoIP) providers.

So what does this mean in practical terms? It means the government will be asking broadband providers -- as well as companies that manufacture devices used for broadband communications -- to build insecure backdoors into their networks, imperiling the privacy and security of citizens on the Internet. It also means that technological innovation will be hobbled as companies involved in broadband are forced to redesign their products to meet government specs.

This is bad news on multiple levels. "Expanding CALEA to the Internet is contrary to the statute and is a fundamentally flawed public policy," explains Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl in EFF's press release. "This misguided tech mandate endangers the privacy of innocent people, stifles innovation, and risks the functionality of the Internet as a forum for free and open expression."

And the government isn't stopping there. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is asking airlines to build similar backdoors into the phone and data networks on airplanes. EFF and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) last week submitted joint comments [PDF] with the FCC to oppose this unprecedented, sweeping new technology design mandate and anticipatory wiretapping system.

As the press release points out, the proposal to expand CALEA to airline broadband illustrates the fallacy of law enforcement's rationale for its CALEA request. To avoid the statute's carefully crafted compromise -- the total exclusion of information services from the CALEA's reach -- the DOJ argues that CALEA covers broadband services because they have "substantially replaced" the local telephone exchange. But airplane communications have hardly "substantially replaced" local telephone services. This request is about opening the door for CALEA to cover just about anything.

Our CALEA FAQ gives it to you short and not-so-sweet:

Q: "Is the FBI trying to dictate how the Internet should be engineered to permit whatever level of surveillance the FBI deems necessary?"

A: "Yes. What the FBI is really asking for is a massive overhaul of how the Internet works to make it easier for federal agents to listen in on people's digital conversations. EFF believes that law enforcement should not be allowed to have veto power over proposed innovations to the Internet in order to make spying easier. In addition, federal agencies should not force the broadband industry -- and by extension, its consumers -- to bear the considerable costs of purchasing and implementing surveillance-ready network technologies simply because it suits the government's needs."

In other words, the government not only wants service providers to make your private communications easily open to government surveillance, it also wants the providers -- and therefore you, the customer -- to pay for it.

For more on the FCC and CALEA, see Declan McCullagh's CNET column, FCC Schizo on DSL, Wiretapping.

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