Listening in to Net phone conversations

The ability to make phone calls over the Internet creates new communication options for all of us — including, unfortunately, criminals. Federal law enforcement officials want to make sure that when bad guys use Net phones, the cops can listen in.

That’s understandable. But giving police that option endangers the privacy of law-abiding citizens, no matter how it’s done.

Many companies now offer voice-over-IP (VoIP) services, and in August the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed rules that would require these companies to make it easy for cops to tap Internet conversations in real time. Similar efforts are underway in Canada.

The rules are important to law enforcement officials, who view an untappable phone system as a magnet for miscreants.

Criminals go to great lengths to shield their telephone communications, according to U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Laura Parsky. “If any particular technology is singled out for a special exemption from these (wiretap) requirements, that technology will quickly attract criminals and create a hole in law enforcement’s ability to protect the public and the national security,” she says.

But with current technology, listening to an Internet phone conversation while it’s taking place involves gathering lots more data than simply the back-and-forth between some gang members.

Part of the problem is that VoIP technology breaks voice calls into digital packets for transmission over the Internet. These packets don’t always travel the same path, or arrive in the right order. Instead, software at either end reassembles the packets into something a human can understand. To capture an entire conversation in real time, law enforcement officers would have to wiretap as close as possible to either end of the conversation, where the packets get reassembled. And that means using devices that collect every bit of traffic from an Internet service provider’s local outpost, through which an entire neighborhood’s traffic might flow.

So if you share an ISP with a nearby bad guy, copies of your e-mail messages to your cousin and of your daughter’s latest music download could be swept up in the government dragnet.

Built-in bugs

There is a way around the problem, but the fix raises other privacy issues. The FBI is asking Net phone providers to put wiretapping code into their software, so agents can listen in on just the conversations they want to hear, while filtering out other traffic.

Though this would protect some people’s privacy, it would also create a security vulnerability that hackers might exploit to eavesdrop on your Internet calls, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group concerned with protecting consumers’ digital rights. “If we applied the FBI’s logic to the phone system, it would state that every individual phone should be designed with built-in bugs,” an EFF statement argues.

For the time being, the problem seems to defy acceptable solution. The law enforcement community needs the ability to listen in on some VoIP calls, but the rest of us need our privacy protected. It’s a dilemma that can only be solved by better technology.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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