FBI fears impact of digital telephony

April 17, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Wiretapping used to be so easy.

All a cop needed was a court order, a little wire, a few simple tools and a headset. With those in hand, it was a simple matter to go down to the telephone company office and listen in while Big Al told Jimmy Bananas to whack Two-Fingers Tommy.

But now something called "digital telephony" is tipping the scales, law enforcement officials say. They contend that advances in telecommunications technology are making it more difficult, sometimes impossible, for the good guys to intercept the bad guys' phone calls.

And it scares the bejabbers out of the FBI. Last month, Director Louis J. Freeh told Congress that digital telephony is "the number one law enforcement, public safety and national security issue facing us today."

His remedy, contained in a little-noticed proposal backed by the Clinton administration, would grant the Justice Department sweeping authority to throw up roadblocks on the so-called "information superhighway."

In effect, the attorney general would become a sort of technological traffic cop, empowered to slow the pace of change in the nation's telephone system until law enforcement officials are satisfied that innovation doesn't harm their ability to intercept calls.

The burden of devising back doors for government eavesdropping would be borne by the nation's telephone companies. And unless Congress attempts to divert some of the cost onto ratepayers, the companies say U.S. taxpayers would foot a bill that could run into billions of dollars.

With Washington preoccupied by Whitewater and health care, there has been little publicity about the proposed Digital Telephony and Communications Privacy Improvement Act of 1994. But the stakes are potentially enormous.

The proposal, which has united conservative telephone industry executives and liberal activists in fierce opposition, provides a stark example of the difficult policy choices that will be forced on lawmakers as Digital Age telecommunications technologies shift the balance of power from government to individuals.

In the case of digital telephony, the shorthand term used to describe the controversy, the Clinton administration has been forced to choose between its desire to promote high-technology industries and its need to be seen as a friend of law enforcement at a time when crime is a hot political issue.

The administration's proposal could have a wide impact on the nation's telecommunications future by determining the design of entire networks.

When Mr. Freeh testified last month before a joint Senate-House panel, he delivered an impassioned plea to preserve what he called "one of our most effective weapons against national and international drug trafficking, terrorism, espionage, organized crime and serious violent crimes."

"I do not relish the thought of being the first FBI director to tell a father and mother that we were unable to save their son or daughter because advanced telecommunications technology precluded the telephone company from providing us with lawful access to the criminal conversations that would have prevented the untimely death of an innocent child," Mr. Freeh told the panel.

Under existing law, common carriers are required to cooperate with law enforcement agencies executing a valid court order to wiretap a suspect, but those relations have become increasingly difficult,Mr. Freeh said.

Since the breakup of AT&T in 1984, he told Congress, the number of common carriers has mushroomed to about 2,000, and law enforcement officers often have to deal with service providers who have no experience in dealing with wiretaps.

Meanwhile, he said, advances in the telecommunications system have made it increasingly difficult to intercept conversations and information about how a call was placed.

According to Mr. Freeh, wireless technologies and call-forwarding have made it difficult to find a caller, much less tap that person's line. Personal communications services (PCS), which are expected to grow in popularity over the rest of the decade, will further frustrate wiretaps with their ability to move seamlessly from network to network. And the bundling of multiple digital signals onto a single fiberoptic line has made it increasingly difficult to isolate a specific call.

Jim Kallstrom, agent in charge of the FBI's New York office, said the problem was already becoming apparent even though "we don't have a whole lot of bodies to stack up and point to."

Agent Kallstrom said that at times there will be 100 court orders vying for four or five ports on one of New York City's cellular phone systems. And that is only a foreshadowing of the problems the bureau could face with the digitized phone system of the future, he said.

"We in law enforcement were asleep at the switch when cellular was being developed in the mid-'80s," he said. This time, he added, the bureau wants to be ahead of the curve.

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