Helping cops keep tabs on wireless data

VeriSign, Cisco and other telephone gear makers are giving law enforcement agencies their first look into the dark side of America's new wireless data services.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
NEW ORLEANS--Cops are finally getting to see firsthand whether pager-favoring, tech-savvy criminals have upgraded to America's newest wireless networks.

Until recently, police conducting wiretaps on services such as mMode from AT&T Wireless and PCS Vision from Sprint PCS could intercept only phone conversations. Millions of instant messages or photos were off limits to crime fighters' wiretaps because the necessary eavesdropping technology didn't exist.

Now, VeriSign, Cisco Systems and other members of 2-month-old Global LI Industry Forum (LI stands for "lawful interception") say they have finally developed the answer, beginning with VeriSign's NetDiscovery service, which was introduced at the CTIA Wireless 2003 show here Monday.

Several police agencies are now testing the NetDiscovery service and getting a first glimpse into whether criminals are among the approximately 10 million people using advanced wireless data services such as photo-sharing or high-speed wireless Internet access, which all five wireless carriers now offer. Crime fighters suspect that criminals are among the earliest users of the technologies, having already made pagers and other earlier generations of wireless devices into tools of their trade, according to a VeriSign executive.

"Sixty percent of wiretapping already occurs on wireless networks," said Lawrence Moores, a VeriSign telecommunications director. "The path that we see we're headed on is toward tapping into data streams."

Neither Moores or VeriSign Vice President Raj Puri would disclose which police agencies are now conducting trial runs with NetDiscovery. They also said they did not know of any instances of criminal activity taking place on any of America's newest cell phone networks.

Other GLIIF members apparently developing the new eavesdropping technology include Verint Systems, Top Layer Networks and SS8 Networks.

NetDiscovery isn't something that's on a store shelf, so it's not expected to cause much alarm among privacy advocates. It will be sold to police or wireless carriers, which are under a federal mandate to wiretap cell phones at the request of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, Moores said.

VeriSign would do nearly all the work for the carrier with technology it developed to capture and decode the data traveling over cell phone networks using General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and 1XRTT (a variant of CDMA) standards, Moores said.

Leading wireless carriers Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile Wireless and Sprint PCS all either have built or are building cell phone networks using GPRS or 1XRTT. They expect to move most of their customers, representing more than 90 percent of America's 141 million cell phone users, onto these new networks in the next few years.