Through the years, wiretapping has gotten a bit of a bad rap, especially compared with its cousin, 9-1-1 calling. In particular, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which Congress passed in 1994, continues to generate vigorous debate about it effectiveness and intent.
As Steve Bock, President of Subsentio noted, in a Tuesday afternoon panel at ITEXPO, perhaps the most infamous wiretapping incident in American history is Richard Nixon’s self-monitoring, which is a portrait of paranoia and certainly doesn’t paint the technology in a positive light. Additionally, recent developments, particularly revelations about the National Security Agency’s widespread spying operation, have done nothing to help the law’s image.
“What happened with [NSA leaker Eric] Snowden didn’t help matters at all,” remarked Bock who runs Subsentio, a company dedicated to providing a safe CALEA environment for service providers. Bock spoke on a panel titled “Wiretapping Up Close and Personal: Why CALEA Compliance is a Must Do.”
During his talk, Bock argued that while the public might perceive CALEA as a law that helps law enforcement personnel invade individual privacy, the regulation was in fact enacted and designed to protect personal privacy. At the same time it was designed to preserve law enforcement’s ability to conduct electronic surveillance by requiring that telecommunications carriers and manufacturers of telecommunications equipment modify and design their equipment.
The question the public may ask, however, is ‘Why does law enforcement need to conduct electronic surveillance at all?’ Bock answered the question with several compelling use cases. In one scenario, after a police officer arrested a major drug trafficker in Texas, informants began to tell police that the trafficker was planning to enlist the help of hired killers to wipe out the arresting officer, his wife, and his young child.
Upon receiving the names of the would-be assassins from informants, police initiated a wiretap of those men and caught them clearly discussing plans to kill the arresting officer. Not only was the plan stopped, but the recorded conversations led to arrest of two dozen other gang members, essentially dismantling a substantial organized criminal outlet. Wiretapping has also been responsible for the break-up of several child pornography rings that likely would not have been taken apart without phone monitoring.
Of course, as Bock noted, CALEA compliance is critical for phone companies for more than just the public good. Increasingly, courts are enforcing these laws and leveling fines against operators that are not compliant. Even if fines aren’t leveled, the simple embarrassment of being dragged into court can be a major negative for a phone operator.
The bottom line with CALEA is that it does not, as many may now believe, give law enforcement carte blanche to spy on anyone at anytime and take any information they please. So as the title of Bock’s talk implies, CALEA compliance is critical for both the public good and for provider’s financial health. In other words, it’s time to cut the law and its standards a break.