Internet Surveillance Expands to Schools, Libraries

Libraries, schools and other institutions that use the Internet are protesting new rules that allow law-enforcement wiretaps and require changes to allow the eavesdropping. These groups argue they should not be covered by the new wiretapping rules.

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Libraries and universities are mounting a legal challenge to a new rule on wiretaps. It's meant to ensure that law enforcement can access new communications networks. The Justice Department calls it essential for fighting crime and terrorism. Schools and libraries say the rule will force them to redesign their equipment and cost them millions. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The new rule comes from the Federal Communications Commission and was originally focused on wiretap access to Internet telephone services. But when the final regulation came out recently, its broad sweep stunned many observers. It includes all broadband Internet providers. Terry Hartle with the American Council on Education says universities and colleges provide high-speed Internet access to millions of students and faculty, so compliance would be tough.

Mr. TERRY HARTLE (American Council on Education): We believe that the order as drafted would require colleges and universities to replace every router and every switch on campus. Colleges and universities can easily have hundreds of buildings and a large number of routers and switches.

ABRAMSON: The American Council on Education took the first steps towards challenging the rule yesterday and was joined today by the American Library Association. The ALA's Emily Sheketoff says there's no way libraries can afford to pay for what she calls an unfunded mandate.

Ms. EMILY SHEKETOFF (American Library Association): It would entail purchasing new equipment, and some say it would also require libraries to have someone available to law enforcement 24 hours a day.

ABRAMSON: Libraries and universities say they already comply with wiretap orders, subpoenas and search warrants. But the new rules say any provider of broadband Internet access must design a gateway for law enforcement in case of a wiretap order. Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education says the Justice Department has explained it to him this way.

Mr. HARTLE: The government wants to be able to wiretap the systems from a remote location as opposed to having to do it directly on campus or directly in the facility.

ABRAMSON: The Justice Department will not comment but has argued for years in government filings that the growth of Internet communications technologies is creating new eavesdropping challenges. Joe Cantamessa is a former FBI agent who specialized in technology issues. He say quick access to information depends on advance arrangements with providers.

Mr. JOE CANTAMESSA (Former FBI Agent): There is probably no more critical need that intercepting lawfully in a timely fashion conversations that, of course, are part and parcel to a crime either that has been committed or, in the counterterrorism deterrence world, something that's about to be committed or some conspiracy.

ABRAMSON: Libraries and universities say they don't question the need for wiretapping. They just want the government to pay for it. But some civil liberties say the government has long asked for a back door to the Internet for easy wiretapping. They see this rule as just the latest attempt. John Morris with the Center for Democracy and Technology joined the challenge today saying the rule threatens innovation.

Mr. JOHN MORRIS (Center for Democracy and Technology): The concern is whether law enforcement has the power to require specific design changes to Internet technology before it's ever deployed to anyone on the Internet.

ABRAMSON: Libraries and universities have asked the Justice Department to declare them exempt from the regulation, but they say the government has refused. The administration has argued it would be a mistake to declare certain institutions off limits to wiretapping since that would just be a signpost for crooks and terrorists. The government has given no indication it's willing to negotiate a middle ground on Internet wiretapping, so the stage is set for a battle in federal court. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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