Wiretap Law Should Apply to VOIP, Too

CALEA is a good law. VOIP is a good technology. But rather than doing away with the first where the second is concerned, we just need to make them work together.

Which do we need more: VOIP or the ability to wiretap terrorists and criminals?

Given that weve lived this long without VOIP (voice over IP) while wiretap evidence has proven its value in nailing bad guys over and over, I have to come out in favor of law enforcement. Yes, I know this will cause temporary disruption of some vendors plans to get rich off VOIP and may even increase the cost of VOIP service to customers, but if the technology is as cost-effective as promised, well never notice.

Right now, the Federal Communications Commission is seeking comments on whether VOIP should be required to comply with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, a decade-old statute thats supposed to ensure that call identifying and intercepted communications can be delivered to the government upon presentation of a warrant.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read about how legislators are urging the FCC to resist pressure from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency to impose wiretap requirements on VOIP.

Law enforcement strongly supports making VOIP subject to CALEA regulation, a position tentatively supported by the FCC. The telecom industry is doing the usual "it isnt possible and its also too expensive" dance weve come to expect whenever a new legal requirement appears.

This industry viewpoint is one apparently shared by my colleague Peter Coffee, at least if I read his recent column correctly. Peter is a smart guy and no doubt better qualified to appreciate the problems of wiretapping VOIP than I am.

But I could care less what the telecommunications industry thinks. How many times have they cried "wolf" and when will they stop? Enhanced 911, number portability, equal-access long distance—you name it and the telecom industry has trotted out a doom-and-gloom scenario of what would happen if it didnt get its way. Yet I notice there is still a dial tone when I lift the handset and I can still afford my phone bill.

Still, the telecom industry stalls, delays, drags its feet, and sometimes outright doesnt comply with regulations it doesnt like. But when all is said and done, they implement them and try to use the technology for competitive advantage.

I think the very day Sprint PCS threw in the towel on its opposition to number portability, the company started advertising to move the numbers of other carriers customers over to Sprint.

The E911 location technology, intended to help paramedics find injured people out on the freeway, will be used to drive commercial location-based services. And weve come to expect a choice of long-distance carriers.

So when the telecom industry whines about how awful some new technology requirement is going to be, I dont mind telling the complainers to just shut up and go solve the problem. And if they can find a commercial application to make money from, so much the better.

The telecom industry should stop bellyaching and accept a law that was written to help keep the good guys and bad guys on a mostly level playing field. Yes, I know a smart crook can use crypto technology, but most crooks arent all that smart. Thus we find wiretaps useful all the time against people who ought to know they are being wiretapped, such as murder suspect Scott Peterson and the late mob boss John Gotti.

CALEA is a good law. VOIP is a good technology. But rather than doing away with the first where the second is concerned, we just need to make them work together. Its just a technology problem—the kind technology people are supposed to be able to solve.

Peter proclaims VOIP taps to be a "dumb" idea. I think its dumber to give criminals and terrorists an environment where they can be certain they wont be observed.

/zimages/2/28571.gif Check out eWEEK.coms VOIP & Telephony Center at http://voip.eweek.com for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.