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FBI wiretap plan scrutinized

Civil liberties groups slam an FBI program that allegedly would expand its wiretapping authority to include communications over Net backbones.

Civil liberties groups are urging Congress to cut off future funding for a Federal Bureau of Investigation program that allegedly would expand its wiretapping authority to include communications sent over Net backbones or wireless devices.

In a letter to federal lawmakers last week, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility also called for Congress to investigate the FBI's plans.

The concern surrounds the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which was enacted by Congress in 1994 and allocated millions of dollars to help U.S. phone companies upgrade their networks and develop new technical standards to accommodate court-ordered wiretapping techniques by law enforcement officials. During a criminal investigation, the government can seek authority to intercept online and voice communications and track the origination points of conversations.

But the inevitable convergence of voice and data networks, in which numerous conversations are bundled together for transmission, could give the government access to some people's private digital discourse without a court order, the groups charge. They say such a plan is unconstitutional.

"It's time for the [Federal Communications Commission] to put the brakes on this runaway train," David Sobel, EPIC's legal counsel, said in a statement. "Congress did not give the FBI a blank check for electronic surveillance."

The FBI has denied the accusations in the past, saying it will not take advantage of so-called packet switching or circumvent court orders to secretly view conversations over the Net or wireless phones.

Along with the letter, the groups filed comments with the FCC requesting that implementation of the new high-tech CALEA standards be delayed "indefinitely."

With traditional voice calls, one-to-one conversations and the location of the callers run on separate channels. On the Net, however, data from multiple users are sent in packets. Investigators with a court order to track the origin and destination of a person's call potentially could eavesdrop on many conversations by different people if the communications take place over a packet switching network.

The FBI contends that because telecommunications carriers are increasingly using packet switching technology for Net and voice communication instead of switching single calls, it is difficult to access just one caller's location.

But in their letter to Congress, the civil rights groups accused the FBI of ignoring lawmakers' "specific requirements for privacy protection" when developing the new technology standards with telcos.

"It is our belief that the CALEA has created an unworkable, impractical, and potentially unconstitutional surveillance scheme that threatens the privacy of citizens and the security of our nation's telecommunications infrastructure," the letter to Congress states.

As previously reported, the groups filed a petition with the FCC in December, asking the agency to block the FBI from implementing new surveillance standards for data networks for at least two years.

In addition, the EFF and the Center for Democracy and Technology asked the FCC in a December filing to adopt a CALEA implementation standard that bars location tracking, and to require that the industry develop a separate standard for packet switching that protects the privacy of conversations and data that law enforcement is not authorized to view.

The FBI could not be reached for comment today to address the latest accusations.

Given the ongoing battle over encryption, however, it is unlikely that a majority of federal lawmakers will freeze appropriations for the FBI program.

Lawmakers haven't been quick to pass bills that would give domestic law enforcement the keys to unlock the technology, which scrambles private digital messages so they are unreadable if intercepted. However, Congress hasn't passed legislation to relax regulations on encryption products for export, either. The current Clinton administration rules state that all exported strong crypto products must have a back door for law enforcement to gain access to encrypted email messages during international criminal investigations.

The FBI has gained some allies in its quest for a similar law to help solve U.S. crimes that it says have emerged with widespread use of the Net. Along with some lawmakers, the agency is pushing for domestic controls on encryption. Proponents of the Secure Public Networks Act, which is under consideration by Congress now, want to make "key recovery" a component of a majority of the networks in the country. The legislation would give law enforcement access to the keys that decode encrypted messages.

Moreover, one of the five versions of the Security and Freedom Through Encryption Act, which is intended to ban key recovery systems, was tweaked by the House Intelligence Committee last year to include a provision to allow "duly authorized persons immediate access" to the keys or plain text of encrypted messages.