FBI seeks vast wiretap system Issues of funding, need and privacy remain to be settled

November 02, 1995|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In Thursday's editions, an article about a proposal by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an expanded national wiretapping system misstated the number of telephone lines that the system would enable the FBI to monitor simultaneously in high-crime areas. The plan calls for monitoring one of every 1,000 phone lines.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

The FBI has proposed a national wiretapping system of unprecedented size and scope that would give law enforcement officials the capacity to monitor simultaneously one out of every 100 phone lines in some high-crime areas of the country.

Such a surveillance ability would vastly exceed the current needs of law enforcement officials around the country, who in recent years have conducted an annual average of fewer than 850 court-authorized wiretaps -- or fewer than one in every 174,000 phone lines.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The plan, which needs congressional funding, would still require a court warrant to conduct wiretaps.

Still, the proposed expansion of the government's eavesdropping abilities raises questions among telephone industry executives as to why the FBI believes it may require such broad access to the nation's phone network in the future.

And privacy-rights advocates see the specter of a Big Brother surveillance capability whose existence might encourage law enforcement officials to use wiretapping much more frequently as an investigative tool.

"A proposal that envisions some form of electronic surveillance for one of every 100 telephone lines would be frightening to many people," said James Dempsey, deputy director at the Center for National Security, a public policy organization in Washington.

"I think law enforcement needs to be honest with the public about what its intentions are."

Generally, FBI officials contend that an advanced, high-capacity monitoring system will be necessary as more of modern life and business -- and crime -- takes place as voice or computer conversations over digital phone lines.

Such communications are harder to monitor than with the old-fashioned analog lines, in which conversations are transmitted as electronic signals corresponding to audible sound waves.

An FBI spokesman declined to elaborate on the bureau's perceived need for such an expansion of its wiretapping abilities.

"The full implementation is absolutely essential for law enforcement and public safety," said Mike Kortan, an FBI spokesman.

The plan, which was published in the Federal Register Oct. 16 but has not drawn much attention yet outside law enforcement and industry circles, is the first comprehensive outline by the FBI of the surveillance capabilities it will require under the controversial Digital Telephony Act signed by President Clinton in 1994.

The law was adopted in the closing hours of the previous Congress after the administration overcame telephone industry resistance to the extensive network equipment changes required to permit digital wiretapping.

In order to overcome that opposition, the administration promised that the government would allocate $500 million to help upgrade industry networks.

Whether the law will ever go into effect is an open question, because it requires a federal appropriation, to be paid for out of criminal fines and penalties, that Congress has not yet authorized.

The budget legislation now pending on Capitol Hill has no proviso for the digital wiretapping money, although the House budget bill included a wiretapping allocation until last week.

The scope of the FBI plan has startled telephone industry executives, who said it was difficult to estimate how much it would ultimately cost to carry out the capacity increases.

The officials are worried, however, that if federal funds are not forthcoming, the government may attempt to shift the financing burden to the rates that businesses and consumers pay to use the telephone network.

"The difficulty in this process is going to come down the road when they ask us to redesign our entire systems and not pay us," said Larry Clinton, associate vice president for governmental affairs at the U.S. Telephone Association, an Washington-based industry lobbying group. "If they try to make rate-payers pay for this, we will run into serious and perhaps even constitutional problems which we hope to avoid."

Some technology experts said that the FBI's projected needs reflect a growing belief that electronic surveillance will rapidly increase in importance in the digital age, where most communications will take place using an array of mobile computerized devices.

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