You’ve been tapped. Well, that’s the plan at least. Your VoIP phone calls might soon fall into new, broader surveillance laws if the FBI is successful in their new wiretapping proposals.
Privacy advocacy groups and Internet companies are both concerned with the latest news that the FBI wants to overhaul the current surveillance laws to include more forms of Internet communication. However, the FBI and other government agencies see the matter as a national security issue, and a necessity to keep civilians safe.
According to a report by The New York Times, the new surveillance proposal would allow the FBI and other government agencies to wiretap most types of Internet conversations, including Internet calls (VoIP).
Under the current surveillance laws, government agencies are not allowed to record VoIP calls without the compliance of the communication agencies that host the VoIP service. An updated to laws would force these companies to allow wiretapping by government agencies. If the companies choose not to comply, they will face hefty penalty fines, starting at $25,000/day for each day of non-compliance.
Surveillance Laws with Traditional Phone Service
It’s already common practice for government agencies to enforce surveillance laws with traditional phone service. According to a report by Slate, the major telecoms like Sprint and Verizon received over 1.3 million requests for customer data in 2011, alone.
Traditional phone service companies have a 40-year history of complying with government surveillance laws. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled that information recorded by third parties, like phone service providers, is not protected by the Constitution's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. This means that law enforcement agencies do not need a search warrant to access phone records. However, a wiretap, which is when a government agency listens in on a live conversation, does require a judge’s approval.
Surveillance Laws with Internet Communication
Compared to traditional phone service, Internet phone service companies have remained reluctant to help government agency gather information on their customers’ calling habits and wiretap their customers’ calls. Several companies, like Google and Twitter, routinely disclose the number of government requests for customer data they get each year, many of which they deny.
The overhaul of surveillance laws would not allow these Internet companies to withhold their customers’ information, putting them on par with the same rules that traditional phone service companies already follow.
Why It’s Harder to Wiretap VoIP Calls
VoIP conversations are tricky to wiretap for three main reasons:
- VoIP calls aren’t tied to physical locations, like cellular towers or analog wires.
- The voice data of a VoIP phone call is usually encrypted, which is makes it harder for government agencies, like the police, to decipher.
- VoIP technology is now mobile, and many VoIP users take their VoIP service with them on the go with their smartphones, tablets, or laptops.
Due to these three things, government agencies have trouble wiretapping VoIP phone calls without help from the Internet providers. Privacy advocates are slamming the new surveillance proposal, while law enforcement agencies are lauding the new surveillance proposal as a necessity to fight crime.
According to recent reports, the Obama administration is preparing to back the FBI’s surveillance proposal, as a matter of national security. The logic behind surveillance laws is to prevent crimes and gather information on any upcoming threats. The government agencies would wiretap VoIP calls only for the sake of criminal investigations.
The FBI’s expanded surveillance proposal has yet not entered Congress, though it’s expected to arrive sometime this year.