Is the VOIP Privacy Genie Already out of the Bottle?

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, eWEEK.com 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.