Sunday, August 07, 2005

❄ Tapping the Net

Skype users take note. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ruled that, within 18 months, “providers of certain broadband and interconnected voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services must be prepared to accommodate law enforcement wiretaps.” Those who must do so provide “services permitting users to receive calls from, and place calls to, the public switched telephone network”. The FCC announcement offered this explanation:

“The Commission found that these services can essentially replace conventional telecommunications services currently subject to wiretap rules, including circuit-switched voice service and dial-up Internet access. As replacements, the new services are covered by the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, which requires the Commission to preserve the ability of law enforcement agencies to conduct court-ordered wiretaps in the face of technological change.”

As it stands, this rule applies broadly, for the FCC stipulates that

“The Commission also adopted a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will seek more information about whether certain classes or categories of facilities-based broadband Internet access providers – notably small and rural providers and providers of broadband networks for educational and research institutions – should be exempt from CALEA.”

The FCC rule has at least two significant consequences. It will impose a cost on providers. And it facilitates a further extension of the capacity to ‘wiretap’. Interplay among the Constitutional requirement of judicial warrants to protect against “unreasonable search and seizure”, insistent ‘law enforcement’ initiatives to win statutory approval of relaxed terms and conditions for electronic and other surveillance, and rapidly-changing technologies complicate this subject in ways which can’t be explored in this brief note. But I will turn to other facets of the issue in later posts.

And this weekend articles have appeared in the Washington Post and Le Monde (where it was the lead front-page article) reporting use by Al Qaeda of the Net, computing, and communications to prepare attacks.

The Washington Post article prompted Dave Farber, Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and former Chief Technologist of the FCC, to comment (6 August 2005) in his widely-distributed listserv list that

“Next we will hear how the net must be controlled; how cryptology must be forbidden etc. The end is near of the free wheeling net and it’s benefits djf”

The Question

Can polities design practices which conserve the Net free and accessible while providing adequate protection against organized attacks (‘terrorist attacks’)?


Of course the Net is not absolutely free or accessible. And no measures can guarantee against attack. So we must start in the practical world. And there are many motives for control other than preventing attacks and enforcing conventional laws: consider the wide-ranging copyright controversy. Is this proposal really about catching drug smugglers or preventing ‘terrorist attacks’?

The political case for private conversations: that citizens must be able to discuss the State among themselves free from surveillance by the State. The Net is a medium for such exchanges, especially in a far-flung, numerous polity. But when the capacity to tap is in place, it is not possible to prove that it is not being used for political surveillance.

The case for a Net ‘open and free’ turns on the claim that social value can be best sought and found when inventiveness is least restricted. Hence the case for joint authoring of open software, and the argument that peer-to-peer file sharing can have socially useful purposes unrelated to exchange of ‘entertainment’.

And why should one believe that extensions of ‘wiretap’ can be converted to the prevention of actual attacks? Would the same investment in methods unrelated to ‘wiretap’ be sounder? Is there not a burgeoning of means of communications, and of masquing messages, such that any group with evil intent can find a way to communicate which the FBI did not anticipate?

The Political Design Problem

Design methods and practices to hinder or prevent ‘terrorist attacks’ which do not require imposing controls on the Net.


[1] The FCC press release and two accompanying statements, 5 August 2005:

[2] Steve Cohl and Susan B. Glasser, “Jihadists Turn the Web Into Base of Operations,” Washington Post, 7 August 2005.

[3] Le Monde, 6 August 2005. “La guerre contre Al-Qaida ’intensifie sur Internet”; Eric Leser, “La Toile est devenue une arme essentielle pour les djihadistes. Depuis que les partisans d’Al-Qaida ont été chassés d’Afghanistan, ils se sont réfugiés sur Internet”; Jean-Pierre Stroobants, “Les services de renseignement britanniques sont passés á l’offensive contre les sites Internet islamistes.”

[4] United States Institute of Peace. Special Report #116. Gabriel Weimann, “
How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet.”


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