By Al Colombo
Reinventing the wheel will cost U.S. tax payers billions upon
billions of dollars, according to a report issued by the U.S.
General Accounting Office (GAO), Washington, D.C. "...the
ultimate total cost of meeting this bill's (S. 2375) requirements
could range from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars,"
says Hazel Edwards, Director of Information Resources Management,
GAO. Edwards addressed the Subcommittee on Technology and the Law
and the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on the
Judiciary, House of Representatives in August, 1994.
The wheel that the federal government wants U.S. telephone
companies to reinvent will enable FBI operatives to more easily
conduct "wirtapping" operations. This is the FBI's plan in the
proposed Digital Telephony Act, now before Congress.
Until recently, wiretapping someone's phone line has not been
a problem because today's telephone networks are based on
"analog" technology. In the near future, however, telephone
companies (telcos) will change their operating system to digital.
When this happens, traditional wiretapping methods will not work
In the past, telephone companies have always been willingly
to work with law enforcement to provide access to their
networks. With analog technology this has been fairly easy to
do because the equipment necessary for the execution of court-
sanctioned interceptions was easy to design and make. Because of
the nature of digital communications, however, the same level of
cooperation between the two parties will no longer be possible.
"Historically, the telephone companies have maintained a
friendly relationship with law enforcement. Conceptually, the
telcos (telephone companies) want to give law enforcement
anything they want. From a practical standpoint, it is a lot
tougher to actually do because of a lack of trained people,
systems, and equipment," says Fred Rokosky, author of Changing
Technology and Electronic Surveillance.
The lack of trained people, systems, and equipment spoken
of in Rokosky's statement pertains to the divestiture of AT&T
back in the 1970s. This act of Congress essentially has
isolated telco communication technicians and engineers from the
design, manufacture and installation details of COE (customer
Up until then, the majority of telephone equipment used in
the U.S. was designed and manufactured by Western Electric, a
subsidiary of AT&T. At that time, telephone technicians and
engineers knew enough about COE devices to facilitate the FBI's
wiretapping requests--sometimes beyond the point of duty. Today,
however, the majority of telco employees do not understand the
new technologies used within commercial PBXs, multi-line
business telephones, and sophisticated single-line models.
FBI Legal Efforts Smell
of Something Far Bigger
It's the opinion of privy surveillance technicians in law
enforcement and the private sector, the FBI's efforts at
mandating easy access to telco networks on the carrier level has
far wider implications than the mere ability to tap individual
criminals' telephone lines.
For example, in the past, court-sanctioned wiretapping efforts
have always been directed against a particular individuals and
criminal organizations. To guard against indiscriminate illegal
search and seizure activities, the individual's name, address,
and what type of evidence the agency involved expect to recover
must be provided to the court before a legal court order can be
issued. Some experts say that if this capability were the FBI's
real concern, that the means of execution already exists.
Instead, experts suggest that the FBI's desire to gain full
access to the all-encompassing telephone carrier network through
at the hub of their operations smells of something far bigger in
terms of wiretapping capabilities.
For example, "...anyone wanting to intercept the telephone
conversations of a specific individual could do so much more
easily on the individual subscriber's line or at the local
Central Office," says Bob Runyon, author of Technician's Corner.
"Why, then, go through the hassle of demultiplexing hundreds or
thousands of trunked telephone communications, then convert each
digitized signal to an analog signal that can be monitored and
recorded, unless a general, non-specific intercept operation is
"It is precisely this concern that gives rise to [the]
suspicion that the FBI intends to 'screen' hundreds, thousands,
or more, private communications in hopes of finding a criminal--
any criminal--rather than targeting one or more specific,
previously identified individuals among the many millions of
telephonic communications that go on every day," Runyon says.
"It is no secret that I am a strong proponent of the use of
surveillance technology by law enforcement agencies provided it
is done legally."
A little known fact is that digital technology makes it
possible for law enforcement to conduct wide-spread word searches
over the telephone network. "So-called roving wiretaps work
through a digital switching system linked to voice analyzers that
can record and identify a conversation instantly. The analyzer
produces a numerical pattern of a suspect's voice. Then the
switching system constantly scans outgoing phone lines for that
pattern, recording the voice that fits the pattern," says Irving
Lawrence, Wall Street Journal.
Today, the computerized equipment used by the telephone
company is "designed to recognize words spoken in a phone call.
One of them, attached to the telephone...network, could provide
electronic surveillance to pick out...dangerous words, angry or
menacing tones of voice, recording any such disturbing words or
attitudes wo that they can be checked out by the authorities,"
says John Wicklein, author of Electronic Nightmare.
When you consider that this capability will stretch across
the entire telco network instead of an individual telephone line,
and considering the fact that most of the wiretaps that occur
today are performed without a legal court order, the implication
that Big Brother watching its citizenry is acutely there.
The opposing argument in this discussion is that the
evidence gained in this type of operation cannot be legally used
in a court of law. However, the intelligence that is gathered
can be, and is used to facilitate investigations already in the
works (i.e. future locations and additional names). This saves
law enforcement a lot of time and leg work, not to mention the
inability of law enforcement operatives to often procure legal
court orders in the first place. Unfortunately, in a wiretapping
operation as large and far reaching as what is currently
proposed, surveillance of private, non-criminal conversations is
sure to take place on a regular basis.
To illustrate this point and the power that digital
technology gives law enforcement, look at the following examples
of possible telephone conversations that would surely be filtered
out of this kind of telco-wide operation.
"I dropped a bomb shell on my employer yesterday."
"I walked more than a a kilo yesterday to the park."
"My husband smokes marijuana, although I don't myself."
In the first example, the word "bomb" would be enough to trip
the FBI's bells and whistles. In the second quote, the word
"kilo," which is used by some as the abbreviated form of
"kilometer," would gain the attention of FBI operatives.
In the last example, the woman who spoke of her husband's
illegal marijuana habit has herself not broken any law. However,
the mere mention of an illegal drug will be enough for the FBI to
zero in on her husband. Here, her seemingly private conversation
with a friend has resulted in what could be construed as a
violation of a Constitutional law that says that this woman is
not under obligation to render testimony against her husband in a
court of law. But now, through her own words, officers could and
possibly would begin to investigate her husband's activities.
This investigation could then lead to a legal court order and
subsequently the apprehension of the individual.
Behind Closed Doors
Runyon cites three things that the FBI have asked Congress
to do in this regard. The third one should concern you enough to
call your Congressman and ask them the status of Senate bill S.
2375. These three things are:
Even Runyon, a proponent of wiretapping surveillance, says
that "this seems odd when the techniques, formats, protocols, and
other technical details are widely published" (Technician's
Corner, May/June 1992, Police and Security News, Day
According to Irving Lawrence of the Wall Street Journal,
police are only one step ahead of U.S. privacy laws. In his
article, Police Tools of the '90s Are Highly Advanced," he says
that Joseph McNamara, police chief of San Jose, California, says
that these surveillance devices and their use must be controlled
in some manner before wide-spread abuse begins to occur.
According to the Law Enforcement News, published by John Jay
College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY, when the Digital
Telephony Act and Clipper chip encryption standard are "taken
together, the act and the standard will further erode privacy and
invite wiretapping abuses. Some believe that the act will allow
law enforcement to build 'back doors' into carriers' systems that
will allow the creation of virtual 'snapshots' of an individual
based on telephone-use patterns.
Despite the assurances of the FBI, "the act would bring about
a level of surveillance capability unprecedented in terms of
immediacy, breadth of application or capability for routine
surveillance of individual citizens," Roy Neel, president of the
U.S. Telephone Association, told a joint Congressional
subcommittee on March 18, 1994.
If Rokosky's view of the situation is correct, it's easy to
see why telephone companies have chosen to fight the FBI on this
issue of full network access, despite the FBI's recommendation
that the FBI petition Congress to "reimburse telecommunications
carriers for reasonable costs incurred in carrying out the
provisions of the bill (S. 2375)...."
The only way that Congress will fully come to understand the
far-reaching implications of the Digital Telephony Act and other
FBI "needs" is if people call or write them to let them know.
Although the right way to prevent the gross abuse of a digital
telephone network would seem to hinge on not legislating this
kind of capability in the first place, it's common knowledge that
common sense and Congressional law making sometimes do not go
hand in hand.