Is the VOIP Privacy Genie Already out of the Bottle?

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-05-22 Print this article Print

Opinion: New CALEA regs from the FCC try to make VOIP open up to law enforcement, but those who wish to hide the contents of their calls still can.

I dont know whether to call it wishful thinking or assume evil motives, but the FCC has issued orders to communications providers to allow law enforcement access to voice-over-IP calls for surveillance purposes. The orders are part of the implementation of CALEA (the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act). In 2005, when the FCC requested comment on the idea, columnist Peter Coffee said it would mean "unreasonable costs for unimpressive benefits," and for very good reason.
In all likelihood, the order will just result in the addition of new equipment and software, probably mostly located at central offices and switching facilities, that will increase user fees and add complication to the process.
The order creates obligations for VOIP providers, not users. Im not a communications lawyer and I havent actually read (much less understood) the actual 83 page order (PDF), but my understanding from reading commentary on it is that it does not prohibit users from running encryption on their own communications. By the way, the order applies to "facilities-based" providers like cable and phone companies. Pure software solutions, like Skype-to-Skype calls, arent affected by it. There are some parts of the order which make me wonder, especially in light of recent disputed reports that phone companies had been sharing call information with the NSA. (I should say I think the reports are questionable at this point given the reactions of the companies.) Consider this from paragraph 9:
    Section 103(a)(1) of CALEA requires telecommunications carriers to establish the capability of providing to LEAs call content information, pursuant to a court order or other lawful authorization; and section 103(a)(2) of CALEA requires telecommunications carriers to establish the capability of providing to LEAs reasonably available call-identifying information (CII), pursuant to a court order or other lawful authorization. [47 U.S.C. § 1002(a)(1), (a)(2)]
This section of the order and the legislation on which it is based sound like they might require providers to collect information that they have no business reason for collecting. For instance, my VOIP plan and most others charge a flat rate for all calls in the United States and Canada. Why should the provider keep call details for any of these calls? As was reported shortly after the NSA story came out, phone companies no longer keep many records about local calls because nobody ever gets charged for them. The law speaks mostly about providers equipment having the capability to record call information, and this is perfectly reasonable. Next Page: Encrypting VOIP calls with softphones.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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