In a showdown with the Justice Department, the wireless communications industry voted yesterday to reject government-backed technology that would make it possible for law enforcement agencies to keep closer tabs on cellular telephone users.
The Justice Department contends that the government has the right to use powerful new surveillance technology under a 1994 law to bring law-enforcement techniques into the modern era.
Among other abilities, the Justice Department wants to be able for the first time to determine the location of a cellular phone caller within a half-second and almost instantly monitor the status of cellular-phone voice mail, conference calls and other wireless communications features.
But many industry executives and privacy-rights advocates disagree with the government's interpretation of the law. The industry says that the new cellular abilities would be too expensive to administer. Privacy groups argue that the measures the government seeks will give the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies worrisome new powers over citizens.
"The FBI looks at the law and chooses to see more than is actually there in terms of its wiretap authority," said Thomas E. Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry, a trade organization based in Washington.
FBI officials, however, say that they are only trying to maintain their investigative skills in the face of rapidly changing technologies that offer criminals new powers for evading detection.
"In 1968 when they passed the original wiretap legislation, phones didn't move," said James K. Kallstrom, the deputy director in charge of the FBI's New York office. "The privacy people say we shouldn't have this information, but the notion that we in law enforcement should not be able to take advantage of the technology is a crazy notion."
Pub Date: 9/20/96