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Justice Department Acts Against Telecommunications Industry

By Terry Frieden/CNN

WASHINGTON (March 27) -- Federal law enforcement officials, frustrated by the limits new communication technologies are placing on their wiretap capabilities, formally challenged the telecommunications industry Friday, warning "information that is critical to public safety and law enforcement will be lost."

The Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigations filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission accusing the Telecommunications Industry Association of adopting technical standards which fail to meet law enforcement's requirements, as called for in a 1994 law.

Lawyers for Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh filed a 67-page request for prompt FCC action, charging the technical standards adopted by the telephone industry are "seriously deficient."

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act [called CALEA], which Congress passed five years ago, was designed in part to require that private industry meet law enforcement needs in the changing technological environment.

But the industry last December adopted standards over the objections of the FBI and other agencies. Federal investigators and prosecutors have warned in recent years that the digital revolution and associated technologies, including such telephone features as call-waiting and conference-calling, increasingly foil court-approved wiretaps aimed at suspected criminals and terrorists.

In the documents filed Friday the FBI and Justice said the industry's standard "is not adequate to ensure that law enforcement will receive all of the communications content and call-identifying information that carriers are obligated to deliver ... under electronic surveillance statutes."

The officials warned that unless the FCC forces a change in the technical standard, crucial information needed by law enforcement will be lost and "Congress's goal of preserving the surveillance capabilities of law enforcement agencies in the face of technological changes will be seriously compromised."

Freeh last year provided Congress with 183 examples of cases in which he claimed court-ordered wiretaps were at least partially thwarted because telephone companies were not able to fully comply with the order.

Officials cite examples of criminals forwarding calls, using conference calling, or call-waiting to avoid being overheard by federal eavesdroppers. In some cases authorities can obtain only partial information, such as listening to just one end of a phone call between criminal conspirators.

The telephone industry is expected to receive nearly $100 million from Congress for technical changes and "retrofits" it made prior to 1995 to comply with law enforcement requirements. However, current law requires private industry to pay for any changes needed after 1995.

Some government officials privately complain the industry ignored investigators' requirements even after 1995 and now expects taxpayers to continue to pay for the changes needed.

The telecommunications industry, however, staunchly defends its adoption of the new technical standard. A letter to the Justice Department last month signed by four major industry groups said, "The telecommunications industry is addressing every statutory responsibility placed upon it."

The letter said, "For over 100 years the telecommunications industry has been a proud partner in assisting law enforcement in the execution of court-authorized electronic surveillance."

The correspondence was signed by the heads of the Telecommunications Industry Association, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the United States Telephone Association, and the Personal Communications Industry Association.

As talks to reach agreement last month failed, the industry formally complained to Justice it was placing "onerous requirements" and was insisting that "industry make a number of concessions."

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Friday March 27, 1998

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Justice Department Acts Against Telecommunications Industry
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