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Fbi Proposes Huge Wiretapping System Expanded Surveillance Plans Leave Phone Industry Asking How, Privacy Advocates Asking Why

Thu., Nov. 2, 1995

From For the record (Saturday, November 4, 1995): A New York Times News Service article about a proposal by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a vastly expanded national wiretapping system misstated the number of telephone lines that the system would enable the FBI to monitor simultaneously in high crime areas of the country. The new approach would allow monitoring of one of every 1,000 phone lines, not one of every 100; the system would let the FBI monitor as many as one of every 100 phone calls. (In recent years, the nation’s law enforcement officials have conducted an annual average of fewer than 850 court-authorized wiretaps - fewer than one for every 174,000 phone lines.)

The FBI has proposed a national wiretapping system of unprecedented size and scope which would give law enforcement officials the capacity to monitor simultaneously as many as one out of every 100 phone lines in some high-crime areas of the country.

Such surveillance ability would vastly exceed the current needs of law enforcement officials around the country, who in recent years have conducted an annual average of less than 850 court-authorized wiretaps - or fewer than one in every 174,000 phone lines.

The plan, which needs congressional approval for the money to finance it, still would require a court warrant to conduct wiretaps.

Still, the proposed expansion of the government’s eavesdropping abilities raises questions among telephone industry executives about how the FBI intends to achieve such broad access to the nation’s phone network in the future.

And privacy-rights advocates see the specter of a Big Brother surveillance capability whose very existence might encourage law enforcement officials to use wiretapping much more frequently as an investigative tool.

“A proposal that envisions some form of electronic surveillance for one of every 100 telephone lines would be frightening to many people,” said James Dempsey, deputy director at the Center for National Security, a public policy organization in Washington. “I think law enforcement needs to be honest with the public about what its intentions are.”

Generally, FBI officials contend that an advanced, high-capacity monitoring system will be necessary as more of modern life and business - and crime - takes place as voice or computer conversations over digital phone lines.

On digital lines, communications are transmitted in electronic pulses represented by the 1’s and 0’s of computer code. Such communications are harder to monitor than the old-fashioned analog lines in which conversations are transmitted as electronic signals corresponding to audible sound waves.

An FBI spokesman declined to elaborate on the bureau’s perceived need for such an expansion of its wiretapping abilities.

“The full implementation is absolutely essential for law enforcement and public safety,” said Mike Kortan, an FBI spokesman in Washington. “We are in ongoing discussions with the communications industry. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this point.”

The plan, which was published in the Federal Register on Oct. 16 but has not drawn much attention yet outside law enforcement and industry circles, is the first comprehensive outline by the FBI of the surveillance capabilities it will require under the controversial Digital Telephony Act that was signed by President Clinton in 1994.

The FBI plan, as filed in the Federal Register, calls for designating each local telephone as falling under one of three categories. Category I would be made up of urban areas, where most electronic surveillance currently takes place. In these regions, telecommunications carriers would be required to make available up to 1 percent of their network capacity when sought by law-enforcement officials.

In lower-crime urban and suburban areas, designated Category II, phone companies would need to make available up to five-tenths of a percent of their network lines, while the predominantly rural low-crime Category III areas would require 0.25 percent.

For many of the most densely populated metropolitan areas, like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, there are tens of millions of phone lines. The FBI document contends that in such places, the demands of digital wiretapping may make it necessary to intercept tens of thousands of phone calls at once.

Some industry officials said they were at a loss to understand how the government expected to make use of such requirements. At an industry gathering last year, telephone industry executives discussing the Digital Telephony Act could not think of an example of more than seven wiretaps ever being run from a single phone company office at any one time, according to Ron Peat, director of federal legislation analysis for the Pacific Telesis Group, the San Francisco-based regional Bell company.

Some technology experts said that the FBI’s projected needs, which the bureau said were based on historical records and on demographic data and market forecasts, reflect a growing belief by law enforcement that electronic surveillance will rapidly increase in importance in the digital age, where most communications will take place using an array of mobile computerized devices.

“These are staggering numbers,” said Mark Rasch, director of information security law and policy for Science Applications International Corp. in McLean, Va. “Either they do a lot more wiretaps than they now admit, or they plan on doing a significant larger number of wiretaps in the future because of the fear of domestic terrorism.”

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