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:
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.
Encrypting VOIP Calls with
The average VOIP user (Im one of these) gets VOIP through a service provider, a phone or cable company, or even a third party like Vonage, which supplies a box for the user to connect to a network and phone system.
Its purposely designed so that the user doesnt have to do any VOIP network management.
This puts the provider in a position where it can, if law enforcement requests it, “tap” the phone by storing and forwarding the communications to said authorities. (In fact, I can imagine pretty sophisticated management software that could be made available to law enforcement.)
But what about a more sophisticated user who chooses to use a “softphone” like CounterPaths X-Lite, Gizmo or SJPhone? These are programs that run on a PC (or a Mac or whatever) and over which the communications provider has no control.
Such users now have the ability to use strong encryption in the form of Zfone, a free (at least as in speech) encryption system for SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) phones. Zfone was written by crypto-advocate Phil Zimmerman, once vigorously pursued by the feds for (hark!) publishing source code for an encryption system. All that did was make a hero out of him and publicize the software.
I suspect someone snooping on the network connection of a Zfone user might be able to tell when calls were being made and perhaps determine to whom the call was made, assuming SIP traffic can be recognized and the addresses of the two parties identified. But the contents of the call are going to be very hard to crack. Of course, such calls must stay all VOIP-to-VOIP. Calls using the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) would be easily tappable through conventional means.
So if Im a criminal (or an innocent person) attempting to keep my calls private, I will have no trouble doing so, so long as the other party and I agree to use the same or compatible software and keep the call on the Internet. On the other hand, people not trying to conceal themselves will probably be as “tappable” as they were on the PSTN.
I guess criminals do mistakenly make calls on insecure lines at times. Shouldnt law enforcement, with a valid warrant, be able to access such calls? The argument against it is an argument against conventional phone-tapping as well, and thats an overreaction.
Clearly Zfone makes it possible to avoid such surveillance, if youre careful, but I think its necessary that the option exist. Just because law enforcement has a legitimate interest in monitoring some calls doesnt mean that users have no interest in their own privacy. It does make the job of law enforcement harder. Welcome to the 21st century.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at email@example.com.