U. joins opposition to increased federal monitoring of computer systems

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The Federal Communications Commission has recently broadened the scope of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which would require institutions of higher education to modify their existing computer systems to allow law enforcement officials to wiretap and monitor them.

As the New York Times reported last month, many organizations are protesting this act, including EDUCAUSE, of which Brown is a member. EDUCAUSE is “a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology,” according to its Web site.

The FCC regulations would require Brown to map its computer network to locate possible wiretapping locations and to have legal representatives available 24 hours a day so that law enforcement could impose a wiretap on the network whenever it was deemed necessary, according to Connie Sadler, director of information technology security for Computing and Information Services. In addition, under the proposed law, the network would be accessible to law enforcement from remote locations rather than only on-site locations.

“Brown will definitely come down on the side of EDUCAUSE for this,” Sadler said. “This is not something we would want to do.”

“Our concern is around privacy and around cost,” she said.

Sadler pointed out that University policy currently allows wiretaps from law enforcement if they are subpoenaed. “Part of the concern here is, “Gosh, most of us have never seen a request from law enforcement, so what’s the real risk here?’ ” she said, citing a 2003 survey from the Association of Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education that found that of the 1,800 wiretaps in place at that time, none were at an institution of higher education. “Why would we make all these changes in our network based on something we don’t generally have a problem with?” Sadler said.

CALEA has been on the books since 1994, but has only applied to telephone systems. “The Internet wasn’t even mentioned in it,” Sadler said. “The Internet was already in wide use, so it seems to people in EDUCAUSE that it would have been referenced” if the need to monitor Internet use was valid. “So, that’s part of the debate now. What was the original intent?”

The Times reported that the Justice Department requested a broader scope for the existing law to respond to possible threats from developing technology, especially the Internet. The FCC complied last month. According to the statements filed by the Justice Department with the FCC, CALEA is intended to help identify and apprehend criminals and possible terrorists in response to the new security threats.

Sadler said the cost of implementing the federal regulations “would be very significant.” The implementation order, which would provide the technical specifications required for the system overhaul, has not yet been received by the University.

“It’s interesting that we’re being asked to comply to something that we don’t even know,” Sadler said. The lack of known requirements also prevents the University from predicting the cost of such possible changes, she added.

Brown’s course of action at present is to follow EDUCAUSE’s lead. “Higher (education) is asking to be exempted,” she said. If an exemption is not granted, “another option … would be to request at least an extension.” Because maintenance of the switches and routers takes place every five years, an extension would allow the University to coincide its routine network upgrade with the federally mandated overhaul of the system, or, in Sadler’s words, “just spend a bundle of money one time.”

Some universities have estimated the cost of these changes to be collectively $7 billion, according to the Times. The FCC is considering exempting higher education but has not made a concrete decision yet.

Andrew Kurtzman ’08, president of Brown’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called CALEA a “clear violation of students’ civil liberties.”

“It is absolutely not necessary for the government to look into the records of students on campus for national security,” he said.

“We were opposed to library records,” he said, referring to the ACLU’s efforts against the Patriot Act. “This is along the same lines … but 80 times over.”

Kurtzman said students have already approached him about this issue. “If and when it becomes some sort of relevant issue to the students on campus, we will take it on and try to raise awareness,” he added.

“We have a reasonable expectation to privacy when we’re using computers on campus. Students on campus have to use computers when writing papers. It’s not, like, opt-in – students at school are going to have to use computers,” Kurtzman said, comparing these proposed security measures to more localized security efforts, such as airport security.

“The government having this power to backdoor into anyone’s system is borderline revolting,” he added.

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