Unwarranted FBI phone snooping

May 04, 1992

It's painful to watch one of the world's premier investigative agencies talk itself into a corner. The FBI, which ought to know better, is backing a bill to block telephone companies from introducing new technologies until they develop ways to let the bureau eavesdrop. In its most Draconian implementation, the proposed law would even require that new communications technologies be vetted by FBI specialists before any advances could be offered to the public. One part of the bill would require telephone customers to pay for the bureau's snooping.

The FBI says it cannot keep up with the new "digital" technologies, and thus is losing its edge on the criminal element. Cellular phones are hard to "tap." Suspects, especially drug dealers, keep moving from broadcast cell to broadcast cell, evading attempts to monitor criminal transactions. But the dealers do get caught, by old-fashioned police work as well as high-tech sleuthing.

Fiber-optic cables cannot be tapped at all, because their traffic, carried on beams of light, simply stops if someone breaks into the cable. The all-digital local phone networks about to go into service scare the bureau even more. Tapping into a digital line not only degrades the signal; since the signals are "multiplexed" in interleaved digital "packets," picking out a designated "suspect" conversation is even more difficult.

Considering how few FBI cases employ wiretaps -- 1 percent, by its own admission -- it is surprising the bureau would take this position. FBI probers have other weapons, such as "bugs" -- eavesdropping devices placed under warrants -- to monitor suspects and pose less risk of broad intrusions on constitutional rights.

It is not the job of telephone companies to invent new ways to spy on citizens, but to improve the free communication that is the lubricant for rapid adaptability in an open society. This bill, however, would insure that future phone advances -- and financial rewards -- evolved beyond U. S. borders.

In these times of exhilaration over the fall of communist totalitarianism, it is surprising to see such a bill promulgated by the U. S. Justice Department. Fighting criminals in the gutters of society is not a justification for stripping away the privacy and liberty of all law-abiding citizens, even if that is convenient for the bureau. We didn't win the Cold War just to stumble into a home-grown totalitarian scheme, good intentions aside.

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