Phone, cable surveillance is sought

February 28, 1994|By New York Times News Service

In the age of computer communications and digital telephone calls, the American people must be willing to give up a degree of personal privacy in exchange for safety and security, the head of the FBI has said.

In an interview Friday, Louis J. Freeh, the FBI director, defended proposed legislation that critics say would turn the nation's telephone network into a vast surveillance system. He said taxpayers would be asked to pay up to half a billion dollars to develop and deploy the necessary network software.

The administration wants to impose new technology that would enable law-enforcement agents to gather a wealth of personal information by monitoring citizens' calling patterns and credit card transactions over the telephone network -- and over the two-way cable television networks being planned by cable and phone companies.

The system would go well beyond current wiretapping technology, because much of the information could be gleaned without the police or FBI actually having to eavesdrop on specific voice or electronic-mail conversations.

"The costs are high, but you have to do a cost-benefit analysis," said Mr. Freeh, who insisted that fighting terrorists and criminals was the government's intention -- not playing Big Brother to the citizenry.

"The damage to the World Trade tower and the economic interests of the country are conservatively estimated at $5 DTC billion," he said, citing last year's bombing of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. "I think the American people will agree that this is a credible solution to the problem we face."

The administration is trying to line up congressional support for the legislation, called the Digital Telephony and Communications Privacy Improvement Act of 1994, before having it formally introduced.

Government officials say traditional wiretapping is becoming increasingly difficult because more and more phone calls and data communications are transmitted as streams of digital information -- representing the ones and zeros understood by computers.

Thousands of such calls may intermingle on a public-network circuit at any moment. Proponents of the legislation say new software placed on computerized network switching equipment is necessary to help law enforcement sort through this traffic.

But executives of McCaw Cellular Communications, the nation's biggest cellular telephone company, told Mr. Freeh and White House officials at a meeting on Thursday that their newest telephone switches already provide the surveillance capabilities requested in the legislation.

Moreover, privacy advocates say the government can point to no case in which digital network technology alone has impeded an investigation. And they note that in the World Trade Center case, it was not electronic communications but mundane bungling of vehicle and warehouse rentals that led to arrests.

Such critics have long warned that in the information age it is possible to build a detailed model of an individual's behavior, political and sexual preferences, social network and travel itineraries simply by examining telephone-calling patterns and credit card purchases.

Some capabilities were demonstrated when law-enforcement agents pieced together a chronological list of phone calls made by the people accused of plotting and carrying out the attack in January on the figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. But the type of software the Clinton administration wants to add to the public communications network would make possible much more detailed records of individuals' electronic activities.

"It will be possible to develop a life-size portrait about you as a person," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Washington privacy-rights lobbying group. "This is not just about a phone number."

For the administration, having taxpayers rather than communications companies pay for the system is meant to dilute industry criticism of the plan, which has met resistance since it was disclosed a few weeks ago. Congressional support is difficult to gauge.

"The bill has some significant problems we need to resolve," said Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., and chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil rights. "The profiling and the tracking aspect of the bill is something we are concerned about."

A version of the legislation was first proposed in 1991 by the Bush administration at the urging of the Justice Department. But unlike that version, the new bill would limit the surveillance to public networks and not include company phone systems -- private branch exchanges, or PBX's -- or private corporate computer networks.

Despite those changes, civil liberties groups and some industry executives say they are concerned that the scope of the new bill would give law-enforcement agencies new access to a vast amount of "transactional," or billing, information related to the setup of a telephone call.

Under current law, obtaining a subpoena to obtain transactional data from the telephone company is easier than getting a wiretap warrant to eavesdrop on actual conversations, which requires a judge to find probable cause that a crime has taken place.

Mr. Freeh met with telephone industry executives at the White House Thursday and with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill Friday to attract support for the bill. He said in the interview that he was willing to compromise by adding safeguards for transactional information.

The FBI director said new technologies were making it more difficult for authorities to listen to conversations of suspected criminals who may be using cellular telephones or whose conversations may be carried in networks of fiber optic cables.

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