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Pushing to wiretap 'push to talk'

Cell phone service providers may be willing to wiretap the walkie-talkie feature, but only one has the technological capability to do so.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
U.S. cell phone service providers are willing to wiretap "push to talk" phone calls, but only one has the technological capability to do so, according to sources familiar with the situation.

"The current technology to tap these calls doesn't exist," said a representative of Verizon Wireless, which this week told the Federal Communications Commission that it believes wiretapping laws apply to push-to-talk, a service that lets cell phone customers talk with the push of a button, like a walkie-talkie. "But being able to (wiretap push-to-talk calls) is different from believing we shouldn't be bound by law to do it."

Sprint and Alltel share Verizon's plight, according to an FBI representative. In fact, the only carrier capable of wiretapping push-to-talk calls is Nextel Communications, which is using an earlier version of the technology. Representatives of Sprint and Alltel could not immediately be reached for comment.

Push-to-talk calls connect to another cell phone in less than a second. Because there's no time spent dialing or making a connection to a network, calls are shorter and less expensive. Law enforcement agencies say criminals are using the technology, knowing full well that the calls can't be tapped.

"It is absolutely true that every day, criminals and terrorists are becoming more savvy with regard to technology," an FBI representative said. "It is also true that every day, we in law enforcement are losing the ability to carry out fully effective means to conduct court-authorized surveillance of criminal and terrorist activity."

The issue was augmented when the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration recently asked the FCC to draw up regulations

to tap push-to-talk, voice over Internet Protocol and other communications technologies that use the Internet Protocol, the world's most popular method for sending data from one computer to another. The FCC isn't expected to rule for a few more months.

Verizon told the FCC on Wednesday that wiretapping laws should one day include push-to-talk services, exposing a rift between it and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, a cell phone trade group. A day earlier, the CTIA expressed an antiregulatory position.

"The wireless industry is committed to deploying a surveillance system that fits law enforcement needs," a CTIA representative said. "Wireless has been working with law enforcement to provide these very capabilities."

The FCC's initial inquiry into whether Net phone services should be regulated has broadened. Besides push-to-talk, applications such as cell phone picture mail and video messaging have also caught the attention of law enforcement, according to New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office.