Federal Wiretap Dilemma

Tait Trussell is a national award-winning writer, former vice-president of the American Enterprise Institute and former Washington correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.


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Federal officials now want tougher laws to wiretap telephone and broadband carriers, The New York Times reported on Oct. 18. But that’s a two-edged sword. We want to trap terrorists before they can act. But we don’t want to block the advancement of communications technology for business needs or even for social networking. The dilemma of balancing Internet freedom with national security is compounded by the need to encourage rapid enough development of technology to keep the U.S. the world’s leader.

Telephone and broadband networks already are required to have interception capabilities under a 1994 law. In that year, Congress enacted the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to guard national security. It defines the obligation of telecommunications carriers to aid law enforcement in electronic surveillance. This has worked fairly well despite wild-eyed attacks from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In January 2006, for example, the ACLU rebuked the Bush Justice Department argument that there was a legal basis for warrantless domestic surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency. ACLU used the old cliché about the fox guarding the henhouse, saying Bush was undermining liberty and privacy.

For several months, officials from the F.B.I., national Security Agency, the Justice Department, the White House and other agencies have been trying to come up with a solution to work through the complexities of today’s communications systems. T hey reportedly have yet to decide just who fits the definition of a communications provider. But they seek a broad application so as to include companies that operate from outside of the U.S. Communication service providers, like telephone companies, are subject to wiretap warrants. Some maintain the capacity for interception. But others wait until they are served with federal orders to develop that capacity.

Law enforcement officials say that imposing a mandate to let them intercept and unscramble encrypted e-mail  messages is necessary preserve their investigative powers. “We’re not talking about expanded authority,” FBI General Council Valerie Caproni said. “We’re talking about our ability to execute our existing authority to protect the public safety and national security.” A terrorist could use a service that encrypts messages between his computer and its servers. In such a case, law enforcement people have to serve the warrant on a service provider to get an unscrambled version of the message. Communication service providers are subject to wiretap orders. But some don’t have the capacity to intercept. The F.B.I. has spent millions helping some communications companies develop electronic surveillance know-how.

James X. Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an internet organization, fears that innovation will be stifled. He was quoted in a July Times story as saying the idea of a new law requiring interception and unscrambling of encrypted messages has “huge implications” that challenge “fundamental elements of the internet revolution.” They want to “redesign services that take advantage of the unique, and now pervasive, architecture of the Internet.” As an indication of the speedy evolution of telecommunications, fifty-six companies from the communications/networking sector rank among the 500 fastest growing firms in North America, according to the latest list from Deloitte consulting firm.

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  • ObamaYoMoma

    You make the government bigger and more powerful via a crisis, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in this case, which GWB used to practically double the size of the federal government via the creation of the massive Department of Homeland Security and the mega National Intelligence Directorate, and they naturally want to expand their power by gobbling up more and more of our freedoms.

    Here’s some common sense, let’s revert the federal government back the size it was before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, save billions of dollars, and make ourselves far more safer at the same time by banning and reversing Muhammadan immigration. Common sense says zero Muhammadans living in America equals zero Islamic terrorist attacks.

    Nowhere in the world where mass Muhammadan immigration has taken place has there been Muhammadan immigrants that have assimilated and integrated. Instead, the majority of the Muhammadans in every case without a single exception have formed Muhammadan no-go zones as parallel societies ruled by Sharia in direct contravention to the laws of the states in which they reside. Hence, it couldn’t be anymore obvious, Muhammadans don’t immigrate to assimilate and integrate. Instead, they immigrate to one day subjugate and dominate.

  • Cynic

    But first you have to control your borders, no?

  • Renee Rogers-Perry

    What happened to the democrats that were so unhinged by GWB wiretapping terrorists? All of a sudden, they want this President to have even more power than a measly wiretapping? This President has taken more individual power for himself than I can ever remember, either though fiat, executive order or through his Congress without their over site!

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