TCS Daily

Technological Tap Dance

By Arnold Kling - May 21, 2004 12:00 AM

"Public safety is not negotiable."
-- Joseph Adelstein, FCC Commissioner

It sounds to me as though Commissioner Adelstein and others are digging into a position that providers of Internet-based telephone service -- Voice over IP, or VOIP, for short -- must be regulated in such a way that VOIP conversations can be tapped like ordinary telephone conversations. The FBI is seeking such regulation.

Adelstein's "not negotiable" formulation suggests a rigidity that concerns me both as an economist and as someone who follows technological change. Here is what I wish that our government officials were saying instead:

Public safety is valuable. Our goal should be to attain security in a cost-effective manner, taking into account the latest technological developments. We must also adapt our institutions to preserve Constitutional freedoms and principles while pursuing public safety.

What to Tap?

The phone system was built to carry voice conversations. In recent years, using modems and DSL circuits, the traditional phone system has been retro-fitted to transmit data. But before the age of computers, if you tapped into a phone line, you were going to hear voice conversations. Therefore, a police agency that wanted to listen to a conversation could tap into the caller's phone, the recipient's phone, or anywhere along the circuit connecting the two.

With VOIP, only the endpoints are "tappable." Once a microphone picks up what I say and converts it into information bits that travel over the Internet, those bits are indistinguishable from all the other data bits that are transmitted over the Net. Those generic bits do not become voice again until a recipient computer/phone receives and decodes them. This makes wiretapping much more challenging technically.

With ordinary phone service, wiretapping is nearly impossible to prevent. Regardless of what equipment the phone user employs, once an agency has access to the phone line, it can tap the conversation.

With VOIP, the opposite is true. The conversation is private unless the system that does voice-to-data translation is designed and implemented to be tappable. If a terrorist wants to avoid having a VOIP conversation tapped, all he has to do is disable the tapping mechanism on his converter or use a converter that was designed without tapping capabilities. My instinct is that it will be easy to hack around any scheme for tapping VOIP calls. The only people whose VOIP calls will be tappable will be people who choose voluntarily to use tappable systems. Terrorists are unlikely to fit that profile.

Even if terrorists are too lazy to hack around VOIP tapping, they are likely to switch to other means of communications. They might use text-based instant-messaging services, for example. These could be encrypted for even greater privacy.

Any way you look at it, the cost of intercepting electronic communications is increasing and will continue to rise. If the FBI starts trying to dictate the design of hardware and communications systems, the social cost of wiretapping goes up exponentially. Ultimately, a costly, futile pursuit of wiretapping capability will undermine public safety, not bolster it.

Better Surveillance Technology

Although Internet technology is making wiretapping cost prohibitive, other forms of surveillance have become much less expensive. For example, small chip-radios (RFID's) make it possible to track all sorts of people and objects. This capability could be used in a number of ways:

  • 1. Instead of detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely, we could release them but require them to wear RFID's until their cases have been settled. This would allow us to track their movements and identify their contacts.
  • 2. We could put RFID's on all hazardous substances. A warning could go off whenever a tracking system shows that the materials for making a bomb or other weapon are moved in proximity to one another.
  • 3. We could require all non-citizens to wear RFID's while in the United States.
  • 4. We could sell weapons with RFID's on the black market and track how they reach terrorists.
  • 5. We could implant RFID's under the skin of captured enemy combatants without their knowledge, set the prisoners free, and then track their movements.

Another technology that has become less expensive is data mining. I have written before about the promise and potential for this technology in improving public safety. Data mining could be a powerful tool for agencies to conduct triage -- eliminating most people as terrorist suspects while highlighting people whose behavior is consistent with a terrorist profile.

Digital cameras have become smaller and cheaper. Security agencies could make more systematic use of cameras.

Back to the Constitution

The FBI makes it seem as though it is losing a vital capability as VOIP makes telephone tapping more difficult. In fact, other new technologies promise to more than offset the lost wiretapping capability, at much lower cost.

To me, the fact that the FBI is pursuing the wiretapping issue with respect to VOIP is just one more reason to doubt that the Bureau is the right agency to fight terrorism. I would have more confidence in a security agency that is working with the latest technology, not against it.

Ultimately, my concern is not that technology will make our security agencies too weak, but that it might make them too strong. That is why I continue to worry about the notion of a constitution of surveillance.


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