When a Senate committee held open hearing last week to discuss the regulation of Voice over IP (VoIP) phone calls - basically, using Internet technology to conduct voice conversations - the first witness to provide testimony was a mid-level attorney from the Department of Justice. There is concern that "drug trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism" are out to exploit the VoIP technology to evade existing laws such as the CALEA wiretapping act. CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) was passed in 1994 and mandates phone companies provide certain basic and specific hardware access for law enforcement agencies to implement wiretaps and in its current form does not apply to Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Privacy advocate groups are up in arms and ISPs are extremely worried about the expense of retrofitting "FBI ports" for accessing their networks.
However, the FBI already has -- and has used -- existing laws and electronic systems to "listen in" on Internet data communications. Systems range from a "Magic Lantern" keystroke capture system that picks up everything typed on a computer to the "Carnivore" packet capturing system. Carnivore is connected into an ISP's internal network and sifts through data traffic, identifying information of interest and forwarding it along for review. According to FBI documents, Carnivore can be tailored to a specific individual and pick up specific types of electronic communications, being able to intercept e-mails while ignoring web browsing. In order to install Carnivore, the FBI must have the active knowledge and assistance of an ISP, along with a court order.
Needless to say, the FBI would like to cut the ISP's active knowledge and assistance out of the loop, and just be able to flip a switch to tap into data packet streams across the county at will. Ironically, government access of this nature was first mandated in Russia. Europe is in the process of adapting Dutch-developed electronic wiretapping standards created in the late '90s. ISPs would be paid for each successful wiretap as a means of reimbursing them for the expenses of implementing the hardware and/software solution. Failure for an ISP to meet those standards could cost a company fines up to 250,000 Euros and house arrest of the company's CEO. - Doug Mohney