Wiretap Rules to Change?

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's anti-terrorism proposal includes a request to allow the FBI to tap all the communications of a suspect rather than just the suspect's telephone.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcrofts anti-terrorism proposal includes a request to allow the FBI to tap all the communications of a suspect rather than just the suspects telephone. The move is a first step toward laws that wireless carriers and privacy advocates have thus far been able to keep at bay.

Aimed squarely at the increased use of cellular phones, Ashcrofts proposal would let agents listen in at any time and any place that a subject makes a call.

"[The] legislation would enable us to obtain wiretap authority for an individual regardless of whether he buys a cell phone on Day One and a week later buys another cell phone with another number and moves from cell phone to cell phone seeking to avoid interception," said FBI Director Robert Mueller at a press conference last week. "That would be very helpful to us in monitoring those we suspect or know to be terrorists."

In 1994, Congress adopted the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which gave the government a certain level of access to telephony systems. The Federal Communications Commission sided with the FBI in ruling that wireless companies must provide location information on callers, that companies were allowed to deliver packet communications to the government without authorization and that carriers had to build additional surveillance capabilities into their systems.

Wireless lobbyist and privacy groups fought this decision on the grounds it would mean huge expenses and the invasion of customer privacy. In August of last year, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the wireless groups, saying the government would need full probable cause to obtain wireless packets. Ashcrofts proposal may change all that.

"The question is whether we have the kind of horsepower to do decryption of the cell phone systems," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in San Jose, Calif. "I think probably well have to keep back doors open. Society has begun to realize what the ultimate in security brings. ... Id hate to be the [American Civil Liberties Union] right now."

As for location technology, the FCC already has a separate initiative that calls for wireless carriers to provide the capability, called E911, to track mobile phones within 50 meters of their location—a tool that would help emergency response teams and FBI agents.

Fran Rabuck, an eWeek Corporate Partner and practice leader for mobile computing at Alliance Consulting, in Philadelphia, said criminals would likely get away with anonymous calls even if the government could track cell phones.

"Your phone being in one place doesnt mean you were there," Rabuck said. "Thats like saying you are where your car is. That would never hold up in court."