Internet's Vulnerability to Wiretaps, 'Cyber Crime'

The Federal Communications Commission recently ruled that Internet telephone companies must enable the FBI to wiretap calls. Privacy advocates worry that this will lead to tracking of Online activity. Larry Abramson reports on advances in digital telecommunications, and their vulnerability to "cyber crime" and invasion of privacy.

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Many users of Internet phone services fear that a new rule from the Federal Communications Commission threatens the security of the worldwide network. The FCC says that Internet phone companies must help the FBI wiretap calls that are made by their users. Some security experts say the decision will make it easier for anyone to eavesdrop on Internet phone calls. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

As Internet phone service, or Voice over IP, has grown in popularity, regulators have been puzzled: Is it fish or fowl? Is it a telephone service, which the FCC regulates pretty heavily, or is it an online information service, which the FCC leaves pretty much alone? The FBI has argued that Voice over IP is replacing regular phone service, so providers mush open their doors to law enforcement for wiretapping. The FBI would not speak on tape, but last year the Bureau's Greg Motta said it would be a mistake to declare certain modes of communication off limits to wiretapping.

Mr. GREG MOTTA (Federal Bureau of Investigation): You can't predict in advance, you know, where groups like al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups who want to actively harm people, what communications networks that they are going to use.

ABRAMSON: The FCC's new rule bows to that concern and says just about any Internet phone service must do whatever it takes to allow wiretapping. Many established providers like Vonage already say they're happy to play ball. But companies that offer something closer to computer-to-computer chat are unsure. Luxembourg-based Skype is far and away the largest of these, with over 50 million users. Spokesperson Kelly Larabee says the company is not covered by rules on wiretapping.

Ms. KELLY LARABEE (Skype): We don't believe that there's a current requirement, but we cooperate nonetheless. We work with law enforcement officials that formally request cooperation and provide investigation assistance to the best of our ability.

ABRAMSON: But that's not the same as creating a back door for the FBI, a way to ensure that Skype users can be tapped quickly when the FBI wants to. That's what the new FCC ruling requires of services that allow people to call to and from regular phone numbers. Skype offers that option right now. Services that don't, like Google Talk, might in the future. The broad sweep of this rule has led privacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation to threaten a court suit. EFF's Kurt Opsahl says he fears that law enforcement is trying to open the entire Internet to surveillance.

Mr. KURT OPSAHL (Electronic Frontier Foundation): Voice over IP services have not become a substantial replacement for the local telephone exchange. And if Congress wants to change the rules, change the statute to cover VoIP, that is Congress' prerogative, but the FCC shouldn't do so by rule.

ABRAMSON: EFF and other privacy groups say the FCC has no business regulating what is essentially an exchange of files between two computer users. And opponents of the rule aren't just worried about the FBI. Cryptography expert Phil Zimmermann says all kinds of people can exploit the same back door that the FBI wants to use.

Mr. PHIL ZIMMERMANN (Cryptography Expert): We're opening ourselves up to organized crime, foreign governments, hackers and all the kind of bad guys we're seeing right now that are crawling all over the Internet stealing our identities and robbing our bank accounts.

ABRAMSON: Zimmermann is the creator of Pretty Good Privacy, an encryption program that almost landed him in jail in the 1990s. The government said PGP was too powerful for average citizens to own. Zimmermann prevailed then by arguing that encryption would actually fight crime by improving security. Now he's making the same argument for Voice over IP.

Mr. ZIMMERMANN: So we're moving to an ever more connected future and we need cryptography to make that happen, just as we needed cryptography to make e-commerce possible.

ABRAMSON: Zimmermann and others are working on software that will protect Voice over IP against eavesdropping. That and the threatened lawsuits against wiretapping rules will create new challenges as law enforcement tries to keep up with new technologies. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

CHADWICK: And more just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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