New Phones Stymie FBI Wiretaps Legislation Proposed by Justice Department Would Change the Way Telecommunications Equipment Is Developed in the United States

By Simson L. Garfinkel, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 1992 | Go to article overview

New Phones Stymie FBI Wiretaps Legislation Proposed by Justice Department Would Change the Way Telecommunications Equipment Is Developed in the United States


Simson L. Garfinkel, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FOR more than 50 years, wiretapping a telephone has been no more difficult than attaching two clips to a telephone line. Although legal wiretaps in the United States have always required the approval of a judge or magistrate, the actual wiretap has never been a technical problem. Now that is changing, thanks to the same revolution in communications that has made car phones, picture telephones, and fax machines possible.

The only thing a person tapping a digital telephone would hear is the indecipherable hiss and pop of digital bits streaming past. Cellular telephones and fiber-optic communications systems present a would-be wiretapper with an even more difficult task: There isn't any wire to tap.

Although cellular radio calls can be readily listened in on with hand-held scanners, it is nearly impossible to pick up a particular conversation - or monitor a particular telephone - without direct access to the cellular telephone "switch," which is responsible for connecting the radio telephones with the conventional telephone network.

This spring, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) unveiled legislation that would require telephone companies to include provisions in their equipment for conducting court-ordered wiretaps. But critics of the legislation, including some members of Congress, claim that the proposals would expand the FBI's wiretap authority and place an undue burden on the telecommunications industry.

Both sides agree that if provisions for monitoring communications are not made in the planning stages of new equipment, it may eventually become impossible for law enforcement personnel to conduct wiretaps.

"If the technology is not fixed in the future, I could bring an order {for a wiretap} to the telephone company, and because the technology wasn't designed with our requirement in mind, that person could not {comply with the court order}," says James K. Kalstrom, the FBI's chief of engineering.

The proposed legislation would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish standards and features for makers of all electronic communications systems to put into their equipment, require modification of all existing equipment within 180 days, and prohibit the sale or use of any equipment in the US that did not comply. The fine for violating the law would be $10,000 per day.

"The FBI proposal is unprecedented," says Rep. Don Edwards (D) of Calif., chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights and an outspoken critic of the proposal. "It would give the government a role in the design and manufacture of all telecommunications equipment and services."

Equally unprecedented, says Congressman Edwards, is the legislation's breadth: The law would cover every form of electronic communications, including cellular telephones, fiber optics, satellite, microwave, and wires. It would cover electronic mail systems, fax machines, and all networked computer systems. It would also cover all private telephone exchanges - including virtually every office telephone system in the country.

Many civil liberties advocates worry that if the ability to wiretap is specifically built into every phone system, there will be instances of its abuse by unauthorized parties.

Early this year, FBI director William Sessions and Attorney General William Barr met with Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D) of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and stressed the importance of the proposal for law enforcement.

Modifying the nation's communications systems won't come cheaply. Although the cost of modifying existing phone systems could be as much as $300 million, "We need to think of the costs if we fail to enact this legislation," said Mr. Sessions before a meeting of the Commerce, Justice, State, and Judiciary Subcommittees in April. The legislation would pass the $300 million price-tag along to telephone subscribers, at an estimated cost of 20 cents per line. …

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