FBI pushes for broadband wiretap powers

All broadband Internet providers, including cable modem and DSL companies, would have to rewire their networks to support easy wiretapping by police, the FBI proposes.

All broadband Internet providers, including cable modem and DSL companies, would have to rewire their networks to support easy wiretapping by police, according to a new proposal from the FBI.

The long-awaited proposal, submitted to the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday, has been crafted so broadly that it would outlaw the introduction of new broadband services that did not support ready wiretapping access. Companies currently offering broadband would be given 15 months to comply.

"The importance and the urgency of this task cannot be overstated," reads the proposal, which is also backed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration. "The ability of federal, state and local law enforcement to carry out critical electronic surveillance is being compromised today."

"It is a very big deal and will be very costly for the Internet and the deployment of new technologies," said Stewart Baker, a partner at law firm Steptoe & Johnson, who represents Internet providers. "This is a very serious request. Law enforcement is very serious about it."

The origins of this debate date back nine years, to when the FBI persuaded Congress to enact a controversial law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA. Louis Freeh, FBI director at the time, testified in 1994 that emerging technologies such as call forwarding, call waiting and cellular phones had frustrated surveillance efforts.

Congress responded to the FBI's concern by requiring that telecommunications services rewire their networks to provide police with guaranteed access for wiretaps. Legislators also granted the FCC substantial leeway in defining what types of companies must comply.

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