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FBI seeks huge wiretapping system

In today's San Jose Mercury, online edition. Forgive me if this has already
been passed around.


FBI seeks huge wiretapping system


New York Times

The FBI has proposed a national wiretapping system of unprecedented size and
scope that would give law enforcement officials the capacity to monitor
simultaneously as many as 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 less than 850 court-authorized wiretaps -- or fewer
than one in every 174,000 phone lines.

The plan, which needs congressional approval for the money to finance it,
would still require a court warrant to conduct wiretaps. Still, the proposed
expansion of the government's eavesdropping abilities raises questions among
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 very 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.

On digital lines, communications are transmitted in electronic pulses
represented by the 1's and 0's of computer code. 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 in Washington. ``We are
in ongoing discussions with the communications industry. Therefore it would be
inappropriate to comment further at this point.''

The plan, which was published in the Federal Register on 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 that was
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 that will be 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

The House measure was deleted after objections from several freshman
Republicans, including Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a former federal
prosecutor, who said that he objected to the way the money for wiretapping
would be raised and that he had concerns about how the FBI might use such a
sweeping surveillance ability.

But some lawmakers say the Clinton administration, which has vowed to veto
the current federal budget bill, saw little point in pushing for inclusion
of the financing for the wiretapping at this time.

And others note that money for the digital wiretapping plan, presented as a
tough anti-crime measure, could be difficult for lawmakers of either party
to oppose outright. The FBI and the Clinton administration are expected to
continue seeking funds in the future.

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.''

The FBI plan, as filed in the Federal Register, calls for designating each
local telephone as falling under one of three categories. Category I would
be made up of urban areas, where most electronic surveillance currently
takes place. In
these regions, telecommunications carriers would be required to make
available up to 1 percent of their network capacity when sought by
law-enforcement officials.

In lower-crime urban and suburban areas, designated Category II, phone
companies would need to make available up to five-tenths of a percent of
their network lines, while the predominantly rural low-crime Category III
areas would require
0.25 percent.

For many of the most densely populated metropolitan areas, like New York,
Los Angeles and Chicago, there are tens of millions of phone lines. The FBI
document contends that in such places, the demands of digital wiretapping
may make it
necessary to intercept tens of thousands of phone calls at once.

Some industry officials said they were at a loss to understand how the
government expected to make use of such requirements. At an industry
gathering last year, telephone industry executives discussing the Digital
Telephony Act could not think of an example of more than seven wiretaps ever
being run from a single phone company office at any one time, according to
Ron Peat, director of federal legislation analysis for the Pacific Telesis
Group, the San Francisco-based regional Bell company.

Some technology experts said that the FBI's projected needs, which the
bureau said were based on historical records and on demographic data and
market forecasts, reflect a growing belief by law enforcement 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.

``These are staggering numbers,'' said Mark Rasch, director of information
security law and policy for Science Applications International Corp. in
McLean, Va. ``Either they do a lot more wiretaps than they now admit, or
they plan
on doing a significant larger number of wiretaps in the future because of
the fear of domestic terrorism.''
   Jay Campbell                [email protected] - Operations Manager
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