Two decades ago the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) was passed to allow law enforcement officials to wire tap phones. The law requires telecommunications carriers and manufacturers of telecommunication equipment to modify and design equipment, facilities and services to allow law enforcement officials access and capability to monitor telephone, broadband internet and VoIP traffic. However, modern forms of communication weren’t anticipated at the time, and so are not included in the legislation. In fact, since its introduction, the law hasn’t been updated at all, despite the exponential growth in the telecommunications industry.
The initial reason for introducing CALEA came from concern by the FBI that increased use of a digital telephone exchange switches would disallow or make tapping phones more difficult and significantly more time consuming. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Director of the FBI, James Comey has asked United States Congress to amend the 20 year old legislation to ensure officials can have access to information stored on people’s mobile phone and communication devices.
Representatives of Congress argue that telecommunications companies, including Google’s OEM partners shipping Android phones, have ensured the privacy of consumers because Congress failed to pass legislation after public anger over the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs. It’s all about protection, and telecommunications companies are providing just that. However, Comey argues that the request is altogether different from the NSA’s spying and states that important cases could be stalled, suspects could walk free and child exploitation material may not be discovered, resulting in fewer necessary prosecutions.
Even with a warrant, the old legislation is making it difficult for law enforcement officials to do their jobs. Despite claims that the FBI is looking for a ‘backdoor’ for access, which would violate Americans’ constitutional rights to privacy, Comey claims the FBI would prefer to use the front door with clarity and transparency. Two well-known internet freedom and privacy advocates in Congress, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) have stated their opposition to amend CALEA. While the FBI is unlikely to take the pressure off the request, it is believed not only that the public would not be supportive of the idea, but that the bill has a highly unlikely chance of passing.