Aproposed FCC rule change filed this month has set off a civil-liberties tempest. Under the change, the FCC would treat packet telephony the same as circuit-switched voice for purposes of compliance with the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (Calea). Given the controversy over the FBI's recent investigations of citizens who have exhibited no connections to terrorism or prior violent behavior, the decision is raising hackles.
I may be an avowed civil libertarian, but in this case I'm inclined to borrow a page from Scott McNealy: "What makes you think there's any privacy left?" Calea's flaws notwithstanding, voice-over-Internet Protocol proponents should not presume that packet calls should receive special treatment. Sure, the ruling will mean more expenses for carriers and Internet service providers, but it also should have been anticipated, given Calea's history.
Indeed, this column raised questions about the law as long ago as 1994, when Calea was known as the Digital Telephony Act. If carriers were expected to make their networks more easily tappable for law enforcement, it only made sense that the requirement would migrate from circuit to packet. The FBI and police played the stalking horse role in promoting Calea, since the National Security Agency had developed packet-copying technologies under the auspices of industry-government research projects like the multiwavelength optical network (Monet). Those who believe NSA has kept to its promise to avoid domestic surveillance need a reeducation on the realities of the post-9/11 world.
VoIP advocates expect a lot. They expect not to be burdened with requirements for supporting line-powered emergency service or universal service fees. Now, they expect to be kept immune from the central-office and ISP point-of-presence intrusion that Calea has represented to traditional carriers for years. As I pointed out in a recent editorial (see Aug. 9, page 48), VoIP calls should not receive a free ride, nor should they expect one.
I support privacy rights in theory but recognize their nonexistence in practice and, thus, advocate living a transparent lifestyle. I hope that making packets responsive to Calea might prompt people to start asking the tough questions: What kind of daily monitoring should I really expect? And why should my carrier pay for the privilege of government tapping of any sort of phone call?
Those questions are far scarier to contemplate than the shadow battle between the packet and circuit models.
Loring Wirbel is Communications editorial director for EE Times and its network publications.