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Long arm of law reaches out: Wiretapping issues aired over new phone services

Associated Press | November 7 2005

BOSTON – A new method of communicating is creating intriguing services that beat old ways of sending information. But law enforcement makes a somber claim: These new networks will become a boon to criminals and terrorists unless the government can easily listen in.

This was the story line in the mid-1990s when the Clinton administration sought to have electronic communications encrypted only by a National Security Agency-developed “Clipper Chip,” for which the feds would have a key.

The Clipper Chip eventually went the way of clipper ships after industry balked and researchers showed its cryptographic approach was flawed anyway. But while the Clipper Chip died, the dilemma it illuminated remains.

With each new advance in communications, the government wants the same level of snooping power that authorities have exercised over phone conversations for a century. Technologists recoil, accusing the government of micromanaging – and potentially limiting – innovation.

Today, this tug of war is playing out over the Federal Communications Commission’s demands that a phone-wiretapping law be extended to voice-over-Internet services and broadband networks.

Opponents are trying to block the ruling on various grounds: that it goes beyond the original scope of the law, that it will force network owners to make complicated changes at their own expense, or that it will have questionable value in improving security.

No matter who wins the battle over this law – the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, known as CALEA – this probably won’t be the last time authorities raise hackles by seeking a bird’s eye view over the freewheeling information flow created by new technology.

Authorities are justified in trying to reduce the ways that technology helps dangerous people operate in the shadows, said Daniel Solove, author of “The Digital Person.” But a parallel concern is that technology can end up increasing the government’s surveillance power rather than just maintaining it.

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