Feds: VoIP a potential haven for terrorists

The Justice Department wants to impose wiretapping requirements on Internet phone calls. But Congress isn't so sure.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
WASHINGTON--The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday lashed out at Internet telephony, saying the fast-growing technology could foster "drug trafficking, organized crime and terrorism."

Laura Parsky, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, told a Senate panel that law enforcement bodies are deeply worried about their ability to wiretap conversations that use voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services.

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"I am here to underscore how very important it is that this type of telephone service not become a haven for criminals, terrorists and spies," Parsky said. "Access to telephone service, regardless of how it is transmitted, is a highly valuable law enforcement tool."

Police been able to conduct Internet wiretaps for at least a decade, and the FBI's controversial Carnivore (also called DCS1000) system was designed to facilitate online surveillance. But Parsky said that discerning "what the specific (VoIP) protocols are and how law enforcement can extract just the specific information" are difficult problems that could be solved by Congress requiring all VoIP providers to build in backdoors for police surveillance.

The Bush administration's request was met with some skepticism from members of the Senate Commerce committee, who suggested that it was too soon to impose such weighty regulations on the fledgling VoIP industry. Such rules already apply to old-fashioned telephone networks, thanks to a 1994 law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA).

"What you need to do is convince us first on a bipartisan basis that there's a problem here," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "I would like to hear specific examples of what you can't do now and where the law falls short. You're looking now for a remedy for a problem that has not been documented."

Wednesday's hearing was the first to focus on a bill called the VoIP Regulatory Freedom Act, sponsored by Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. It would ban state governments from regulating or taxing VoIP connections. It also says that VoIP companies that connect to the public telephone network may be required to follow CALEA rules, which would make it easier for agencies to wiretap such phone calls.

The Justice Department's objection to the bill is twofold: Its wording leaves too much discretion with the Federal Communications Commission, Parsky argued, and it does not impose wiretapping requirements on Internet-only VoIP networks that do not touch the existing phone network, such as Pulver.com's Free World Dialup.

"It is even more critical today than (when CALEA was enacted in 1994) that advances in communications technology not provide a haven for criminal activity and an undetectable means of death and destruction," Parsky said.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., wondered if it was too early to order VoIP firms to be wiretap-friendly by extending CALEA's rules. "Are we premature in trying to tie all of this down?" he asked. "The technology shift is so rapid and so vast."

The Senate's action comes as the FCC considers a request submitted in March by the FBI. If the request is approved, all broadband Internet providers--including companies using cable and digital subscriber line technology--will be required to rewire their networks to support easy wiretapping by police.

Wednesday's hearing also touched on which regulations covering 911 and "universal service" should apply to VoIP providers. The Sununu bill would require the FCC to levy universal service fees on Internet phone calls, with the proceeds to be redirected to provide discounted analog phone service to low-income and rural American households.

One point of contention was whether states and counties could levy taxes on VoIP connections to support services such as 911 emergency calling. Because of that concern, "I would not support the bill as drafted and I hope we would not mark up legislation at this point," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., added: "The marketplace does not always provide for critical services such as emergency response, particularly in rural America. We must give Americans the peace of mind they deserve."

Some VoIP companies, however, have announced plans to support 911 calling. In addition, Internet-based phone networks have the potential to offer far more useful information about people who make an emergency call than analog systems do.