WASHINGTON-The wireless telecommunication industry and the Federal Bureau of Investigations are back on a collision course over how the 1994 digital wiretap bill should be implemented. The issue is an escalating dispute that Congress likely will be forced to sort out.

Last week, a coalition comprised of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the Personal Communications Industry Association, the United States Telephone Association and the Center for Democracy and Technology accused the FBI of straying from congressional intent and misleading lawmakers that the transition process is going well.

In an April 29 letter to judiciary and appropriations committees in the House and Senate, the group said it believes “that law enforcement is using the implementation process to significantly expand surveillance capabilities and capacities beyond those contemplated by CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) … and to unfairly shift costs and accountability for implementation from government, as provided by CALEA, to private industry and private American citizens.”

CALEA was enacted in October 1994 to help FBI eavesdropping keep pace with advancements in telecommunications technologies and network architectures.

Even though the industry, privacy advocates and the FBI were able to pull together on a digital wiretap bill three years ago, the relationship between the parties continues to be strained and is rooted in mistrust.

Making matters worse has been Congress’ failure to secure adequate funding for CALEA, a consequence owed largely to Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and fear that CALEA-unchecked-will expand FBI electronic surveillance capability into an illegal zone.

The $500 million authorized by Congress was intended, among other things, to reimburse telecom carriers for making CALEA-imposed modifications to their networks required by law from fiscal years 1995 through 1998.

But 1997 is the first year money was appropriated to CALEA. Congress earmarked $100 million this year for CALEA, but only after a compromise with Barr that requires the FBI to meet certain conditions before dollars are freed up.

The FBI said it wants $100 million for CALEA in each of the next four years.

Under the law, new personal communications services licensees and possibly digital cellular carriers would not be reimbursed for network alterations because of a Jan. 1, 1995, system-deployment cut off date.

The wireless industry is trying to get the snag remedied in Congress.

The FBI, according to the coalition, has ignored Congress’ directive that industry set standards for new digital wiretap capability requirements. The industry standard is expected to be completed in June.

In addition, the group says the FBI-not industry-is to blame for delays and complications and claims law enforcement is demanding technical specifications for digital wiretaps that industry has rejected because carriers think they would violate privacy rights and impose unreasonable technical burdens on carriers.

Thomas Wheeler, president of CTIA, has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the FBI on this front.

In a March 20 letter to James Kallstrom, head of the FBI’s New York office, Wheeler blasted the FBI for not working with the telecommunications industry on a digital wiretap implementation plan that could be jointly presented to Congress six months earlier than required.

“The confusion and disagreement between industry, privacy groups, and FBI personnel over various aspects of CALEA interpretation and implementation has done nothing but impede the achievement of our common goal of catching criminals,” said Wheeler.

“Left unresolved,” added Wheeler, “these `thrust and parry’ disputes invariably end up as media reports that contribute nothing to fostering necessary cooperation between the parties.”

An FBI spokesman said, “We will respond point by point to the serious misrepresentations set forth in Mr. Wheeler’s letters.”


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