Wiretapping's Real Threat: Non-Compliance


Wiretapping's Real Threat: Non-Compliance

By TMCnet Special Guest
Steve Bock, President, Subsentio
  |  May 20, 2013

A child is abducted by a convicted sex offender. When law enforcement asks the communications service provider for technical assistance with the monitoring of the criminal’s phone conversations, they cannot access the communications because the CSP (News - Alert) has not complied with The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. 

CALEA is the federal law requiring CSPs to provide technical assistance to law enforcement agents engaged in lawful electronic surveillance of criminal suspects. The technical nature of the law makes it one of telecom’s least understood and, for carriers, hard to implement mandates.

In the eyes of the law, however, it’s no excuse to ignore CALEA due to lack of engineering expertise. With the variety of telecom services available to criminals and the rise of court orders for electronic surveillance, sooner or later any CSP could receive a court order requiring CALEA assistance. When that day arrives, the CSP can expect heightened scrutiny for compliance. Many aren’t ready.

How CALEA is “Tough” on CSPs

To comply with CALEA, carriers need more than engineers. Stumbling blocks to compliance may include:

  • Cost: Traditional compliance solutions can strain the budgets of smaller CSPs.
  • Hardware mysteries: Some equipment manufacturers aren’t familiar with the nuances of U.S. electronic surveillance standards.
  • Rising demand: Although lawful intercepts dipped slightly in 2011, the number nearly doubled over the previous decade to 2,732 authorized wiretaps, and likely rose once more in 2012.
  • Legal staff: Not all court orders are written correctly. To avoid legal issues, CSPs need, but often lack, the legal support to review and validate incoming court orders.
  • Shifting policy: Since technology is outpacing electronic surveillance laws, updates to the law may be required, adding new complexity for CSPs.

How The CALEA Nobody Knows

CALEA technical standards both define and limit the types of communications that an intercept solution may deliver to law enforcement. That point is often overlooked. In the digital era, CALEA stands as a bulwark of individual privacy so that law enforcement monitors only the communications described in the given court order and does not engage in fishing expeditions.  

Because wiretapping in this country is conducted under the strict oversight of due process standards, most people accept the practice as a necessary law enforcement tool. What the public may not realize is how valuable the tool is. Lawful surveillance has repeatedly led to the rescue of kidnapped children and the apprehension of terrorists, drug lords, murderers, and child pornographers. These and similar real-life heroics of law enforcement working with CALEA-compliant CSPs play out quietly to bring many crimes to a non-violent resolution.

CSPs that are not CALEA-compliant find themselves scrambling when a court order arrives. The resulting delay could frustrate a law enforcement investigation and even lead to loss of life. In addition, the carrier could become subject to a costly CALEA enforcement action. 

CSPs should install the required CALEA capabilities without waiting for a law enforcement crisis to occur. It’s the law.

Steve Bock is president of Subsentio (www.subsentio.com) a third-party service bureau for lawfully authorized electronic surveillance.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi