U.S. seeks legislation to aid digital wiretaps

February 12, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The White House is pressing for legislation to force telephone and cable television companies to install computer software on their networks that would enable law enforcement agencies to eavesdrop on phone calls and computer transmissions, Clinton administration officials said yesterday.

The move, intended to preserve the law enforcement agencies' ability to conduct court-authorized wiretaps, is intended to overcome the difficulty of intercepting telephone conversations and other electronic transmissions in the on-off pulses of digital computer code, which is being used increasingly for everyday communications.

The administration's plan comes on the heels of a White House effort to promote use of a government-designed computer chip, known as the Clipper Chip, that would facilitate law-enforcement agencies' interceptions of coded computer communications.

Like the computer chip plan, the new bill is likely to put the administration on a collision course with both telecommunication companies and civil rights groups.

Industry executives believe any such measure could cost as much as $300 million, so that they would have to seek higher rates from customers. Civil rights groups argue the measure is largely unnecessary and poses potential threats to privacy.

"We're not objecting to wiretaps," said Marc Rotenberg, director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group in Washington. "We're saying they don't have the right to pass a law that requires people to make it easier to wiretap."

Telephone and cable companies are building advanced networks that will also be used for shopping, education and personal business, so more than tapping telephone calls is at stake.

"We're not only talking about voice communications," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, nonprofit group in Washington that lobbies on social issues related to electronics.

The new bill, which is a revised version of legislation proposed two years ago by the Bush administration but never introduced in Congress, would not change any of the legal standards set for law enforcement agencies' wiretaps. Rather, it would require companies to install technology that makes it possible to continue traditional wiretapping.

Officials of the FBI, the plan's main proponent, and other law enforcement agencies argue that traditional wire-tap techniques, which entail little more than splicing into a telephone line and listening, are insufficient for today's digital networks.

Beyond that, they contend, the telephone industry is now using new computerized routing technology that makes it harder to isolate particular calls or figure out where they are going.

However, Martina Bradford, vice president of government affairs for AT&T, said yesterday that the company saw no need for mandatory requirements on the industry.

"Our main concern in the past was that the Bush legislation appeared to be too broad, too sweeping and premature," she said. "We can work these things out under the broad guidelines of current law."

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