CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1994 //

Jacking in from the Financial Port:

Washington, DC -- The White House is jumping into the lion's den.

The Administration is backing a controversial FBI plan that would mandate the installation of wiretap "trap doors" on all types of communications, government sources said. But the decision to support the so-called "Digital Telephony Bill" is based, in large part, on severely flawed data.

A confidential FBI cost analysis document, a copy of which was obtained by Dispatch, estimates it would take some $300 million to implement the mandatory wiretap access scheme. But government and industry sources say that the actual cost of implementation could quickly escalate to more than $1 billion. Reason: The FBI's own cost analysis doesn't consider the price of mandatory compliance for computer networks, cable TV operations, digital cellular systems, or emerging personal communications systems.

A key factor in the debate holding up the announcement of White House backed digital wiretap legislation is who will eventually be saddled with the bill. It might help if the FBI could come up with some reliable figures, but even their own classified documents acknowledge that they don't have a clue: "The cost to the telecommunications industry of complying with the provisions and requirements of the legislation is not susceptible the precise measurement."

Software Solutions

The FBI's answer to the digital wiretap problem lies in developing a software program that could be loaded into a telephone switch. But the cost for developing this software is "difficult to estimate absent specific feasibility studies," FBI documents say. It is known that at least four different versions of the program would have be written to cover the installed base of telephone switches in the U.S.

What the FBI's cost estimate doesn't mention is the price for maintaining the software. Currently the Baby Bells and major independent telephone companies spend more than $1 billion in new switch and application upgrade software, according to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Now, you tell me, who's going to pony up the bucks to revise the wiretap software to make sure it's compatible with each new calling feature and modification to switch software?

Quality control and the integrity of the nation's telephone network isn't something the phone companies are willing to fuck with. Software is a big, big deal. Switch manufacturers remember all too well getting reamed by House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) during intense congressional hearings in 1990 to explain why half of the East Coast lost dial tone when switches toppled like dominoes. The cause, it was later admitted, was a "3 Bit Bug" software coding error. The switch's software revision hadn't undergone rigorous enough testing before being installed in the local network.

So, who picks up the check? The FBI first wanted you to pay for all this work. That's right, through higher local telephone rates. That idea drew such withering fire from consumer groups and industry that the FBI deleted that language from its original bill. But the question remains: Who the hell is going to pay?

The FBI says it can short hop all this grief: "Industry may, after comparing the necessary attributes of electronic surveillance with available or planned network/system analysis and maintenance tools, formulate solutions for embedded and emerging systems that would require a much less extensive level of efforts, and a commensurate reduction of costs."

In other words, the FBI thinks switch manufacturers will simply start making their switches "wiretap ready" as they come off the damn assembly line. Neat trick if you can pull it off. Bury the cost in the R&D budget, hide it in the retail cost of the switch and BINGO, the phone companies get to depreciate the cost over 20 years and the ratepayer (that's you) has no idea that they end up paying to make some cop's life easier.

Data Diving

When it comes to eavesdropping on someone's Prodigy or CompuServe or Internet session, the FBI again has a simple solution: Turn the system administrator into an ad hoc FBI agent. You think I'm joking? Check out this statement, again from the confidential FBI report: "Enhanced audit functions could be included in future operating system revisions or through after-market diagnostics/audit software packages. (The Norton Network Wiretap Utilities, no doubt.) The implementation of this capability would be, in essence, a no cost educational process for the system's operator or administrator." (But will they be able to sleep at night?)

Cable TV systems get hammered, too. With cable companies getting into the telephone business, the FBI wants to be sure they are required to make their networks wiretap ready. Because "a certain number" of wiretaps "would be expected to occur within such systems," the FBI said. The FBI cost documents don't even proffer a guess at what it would cost to front load cable networks with wiretap software. Instead, the FBI says that if these cable systems use the switches of the Baby Bells, well, everything is Jake. Why? Because the local telephone companies would have already installed the damn software long ago.

What happens if cable companies want to build their own independent telephone networks? Not to worry, the FBI says, "it would be contemplated that [cable companies] would 'engineer in' criminal law enforcement's needs in the design stages of development." And once that occurs, "the costs associated with compliance would be minimal," the FBI says.

The same logic applies to emerging PCS systems. The "most cost efficient solution" for potential PCS companies is to design and plan for mandatory wiretap access capability "during the development and pre-production phase" of their networks, the FBI said.

Are you getting this? If the FBI gets its way, the entire NEXT GENERATION of communications networks -- from your hand held "call anywhere phone," to your digital personal assistant, like Apple's Newton -- will come PRE-INSTALLED with wiretap capability. And the cost will be buried, yet again, the design phase. Nice touch.

Oh yeah, then there are those pesky PBXs, the ones owned by businesses, schools, churches, libraries, non-profit organizations. According to the FCC there are up to 400,000 of these buggers hanging around, of which 70% are analog breathing technological beasts. Analog technology is doable for the FBI; it's the digital shit they can't handle.

The FBI says that to replace a PBX that gives them grief would cost an average of $70,000, in 1992 dollars. So, being the nice guys they are, the FBI would allow the Justice Department to grant a waiver to these PBX owners so they could save up enough money to buy a wiretap equipped PBX.

Digital Wiretaps, Making the Nation Safe

The FBI thinks all this is worth it, apparently at any cost. Failing to do so would cause "enormous economic harm" due to crime, which it estimates is in the multibillion range, the FBI says. Still not convinced? Well, to hell with the cost, the damn telecommunications industry is obligated to do all this, according to FBI logic.

"It is worth noting... that the telecommunications industry historically has been required to respond to public safety needs both at the state and Federal levels," the FBI says. "We view the legislative proposal as being consistent with the need to ensure the public's safety through the effective enforcement of the law."

Meeks out...