Government Wants to Make Internet Phone Calls Wiretap-Friendly

Washington’s appetite for easy surveillance has again put civil liberties on the run.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration have jointly asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to extend hidebound, phone-company style wiretap capability into new Internet-based phone calls (called "VoIP" for Voice over Internet Protocol). They argue that leaving the new technology unregulated would make it harder to monitor possible terrorist communications.


Apart from this new effort to make Internet phone calls wiretap-friendly, the government has instituted controversial and invasive computer-assisted airline passenger screening, escalated e-mail monitoring (fostered by the USA Patriot Act), and sought the Total Information Awareness data-mining project (now renamed "Terrorism" Information Awareness). Even a national ID card was proposed.


Government’s desire for a surveillance state is increasingly facilitated by the march of privacy-invading technology.


Along with wiretaps and data-mining, there is biometrics, e.g., voiceprints, retina, iris and face scanners, and digitized fingerprints.


Taken together, real-time monitoring of our conversations, whereabouts, movements or transactions is already at hand. This is a Big Brother scenario, one of constant surveillance and possible harassment of citizens, a fundamental threat to values of privacy and liberty.


Washington must better explain its philosophy regarding surveillance technologies. No one wants to be treated like a human bar code by the authorities, or monitored around the clock by the Department of Homeland Security.


Government should restrict the liberty of dangerous criminals and enemies—not that of innocent citizens. At the very least, new powers should apply only to terrorism, not to routine criminal investigations.


Unfortunately, the impulse for law enforcement infrastructure like Internet phone wiretaps will be for surveillance of non-terrorists. The "perpetrators" of victimless crimes–the pot smoker or gambler–will surely find themselves under renewed scrutiny, although this is clearly beyond the rationale of combating terrorism.


While surveillance can and likely will be enhanced to account for the new realities of instant electronic communications, the 4th Amendment’s protections against unreasonable and warrantless searches need not suffer. For example, securing wiretaps for an individual target, rather than separate ones for each phone, can make sense if requirements that judges approve wiretap requests are enhanced, too.


The proper approach is not to eavesdrop on the entire Net, but to instead obtain a warrant and wiretap, record, film or use software bugs to "spy" on the keystrokes of a particular suspect.


With regard to the new phone-tapping campaign, founder Jim Harper noted, "The law enforcement cart is coming before the civil society horse. The communications infrastructure is being created with eavesdropping in mind before there is any evidence of (the need for) it, plus … it won’t work anyway as the criminals will use offshore VoIP or open source VoIP, rather than…any of the major carriers."


As a practical matter, enhanced Internet phone surveillance would mean costly equipment upgrades and industry regulation to run the scheme.


Indeed, regulating communications could encumber us far more than the terrorists, who can still encrypt as well as use other means of communication.


Terrorists can use face-to-face contact, employ human messengers, compose messages in free e-mail accounts (perhaps sharing a password instead of sending the message), or conceal messages in online pictures and other files.