VoIP wiretap laws in the spotlight

As Canada’s government hammers out rules that allow police to wiretap voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone calls, their counterparts in the United States say VoIP should be as accessible to law enforcement agencies as traditional phone calls are.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week said it figures the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) should apply to VoIP. That means VoIP service providers would have to offer a means for the police to listen in on VoIP calls, just as they can eavesdrop on conversations traversing the public-switched telephone network (PSTN).

The FCC’s commissioners voted to examine changes to CALEA such that the act would encompass managed communications services offered over broadband connections, including managed instant messaging or video services. Non-managed peer-to-peer (P2P) services, such as Skype’s computer-to-computer IP phone service, would likely not be subject to CALEA regulations, FCC staff said.

“Law enforcement access to IP-enabled communications is essential,” said FCC chairperson Michael Powell, adding that his group does not aim to regulate the Internet as a whole.

The FCC has invited telecom firms and other interested parties to submit comments for the CALEA review.

In Canada, the government is working towards its own rules surrounding lawful access. That task appears to be the purview of two federal groups: the Department of Justice (DoJ), and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The DoJ got the lawful access ball rolling in 2002, when it released a discussion paper on the subject, saying the Criminal Code must be changed so police can tap new communication links like VoIP. In the summer of 2003 the DoJ released the results of a public consultation wherein law agencies, public advocacy groups and communication service providers offered their opinions of lawful access.

Service providers and police were generally at odds over one aspect of the discussion: service providers said the government should pay for the technological upgrades required to provide lawful access on wide-area networks, while police agencies argued that service providers should pick up the tab.

The public-consultation summary appeared on the DoJ’s Web site last August. The site does not offer an update on the lawful access consultation process. The department could not be reached for comment before press time.

The CRTC is undertaking a review of economic regulations for VoIP services. The Commission plans to hold a public hearing in September. It has collected a number of written submissions as to whether or not VoIP service providers should have to mind the same pricing rules as do traditional phone service operators, but the discussion also includes comments regarding lawful access.

“VoIP service providers should be brought under regulatory control,” writes Chief Edgar MacLeod, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. “These providers should be intercept-capable prior to the rollout of their infrastructures. Simply put, information that has been available to law enforcement and national security agencies when criminals and terrorists used the mail, rotary phones and analogue technologies should be available to them now.”

“It is unclear if present Criminal Code wording on…warrant requirements for wiretaps would apply to VoIP,” reads a submission to the CRTC from Michael Janigan of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “Nonetheless, Canadians expect the same rules to apply for judicial authorization of wiretaps regardless of the technology used to deliver their phone calls.”

Asked if the Commission could provide an update on the DoJ’s lawful access consultation, a CRTC rep said, “I think your questions are for the Department of Justice.”

Industry observers say they expect Canada’s government to follow the U.S. government’s lead: decide that VoIP services should provide police lawful access to networks.

“The practice (for service providers) in Canada has been to go beyond the law,” said Brownlee Thomas, a Montreal-based analyst covering global telecom trends at Forrester Research Inc. She added that compared to their counterparts in the U.S., Canadian service providers and law enforcement agencies are “far more cooperative.”

– With files from Grant Gross, IDG News Service

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