The Bush Administration has asked the Federal Communications Commission to require broadband service providers to introduce new architecture in their networks that would facilitate eavesdropping by law enforcement officials. The 85-page proposal was filed March 12 by the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Experts are saying that if it is approved, it could dramatically hinder both emerging and existing technologies.

“This filing even says that the FBI should be able to approve any new technologies so that it can get what it wants when it tries to intercept things, which is pretty astounding,” says Lara Flint, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Implementing this kind of prior approval authority would have a serious effect on innovation in the United States.”
The FCC has issued a statement saying that it wants to receive comments on the proposal by mid-April. “I would guess there will be many comments filed,” says Flint.

The proposal specifically calls for giving police easy access to all forms of “switched” Internet communications, including communications conducted over Voice-over-IP (VoIP) systems, instant messaging systems, and communications taking place over cable modem and DSL networks. The language of the proposal, which is posted online, implies that backdoors should be integrated in networked systems to allow law enforcement officials eavesdropping rights.

The proposal seeks to extend to broadband providers rules already in place for telecommunications providers under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which became law in 1994. The CALEA rules require police in many cases to seek court approval before engaging in wiretapping, but many of those limitations were circumvented by the Patriot Act, which Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Bush Administration got quick approval for in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

“Many of the VoIP providers are already working closely with law enforcement to make sure they can get what they need,” says Flint. “The problem, though, is that the FBI shouldn”t be designing technology systems. They shouldn”t be going into the core of the Internet and rearchitecting things, which is what would hurt innovation.”

When CALEA was enacted in 1994, telecommunications carriers relied on ‘narrowband” technology,” reads the text of the proposal. “When the current trend of IP convergence is complete, and most if not all forms of electronic communications are transmitted over a common IP core, CALEA will be of little value. The movement toward packet-based networks… has already progressed far enough to have a serious impact on law enforcement”s ability to perform authorized electronic surveillance.”

Flint says the proposal would introduce substantial new compliance costs for broadband providers. The proposal”s text says it would “permit carriers to recover their CALEA implementation costs from their customers.” “That even raises concerns over what kinds of costs customers might face in just simply getting Internet access,” says Flint.

PC Magazine will follow up as the FCC fields comments on the proposal.