CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1994 //

Jacking in from the Budget Busting Port:

The White House today began floating its version of the controversial digital wiretap bill that requires all communications systems to be made wiretap ready. The bill has teeth. It gives the Feds the right to shut down any telephone, cable or computer network that fails to give law enforcement what it wants: Easy access to any and all conversations. Bar none.

The new bill, a copy of which was obtained by Dispatch, is a "new and improved" version of the fatally flawed FBI digital wiretap bill that atrophied on Capitol Hill during the Bush Administration. That bill was in flames before the ink dried on the draft copies. It mandated compliance from industry within 120 days of passage ("fucking impossible," one telephone executive said at the time) and required you and me to pay for making the FBI's job easier. "No fucking way," was the general consensus, from industry as well as a wellspring of privacy and civil liberties groups.

The Clinton policy wonks, however, seem to be twisted students of history. They've bought off on the general principle of the bill, but sought to take the sting out of it. Here's what those brilliant Thirtysomething workaholics have decided: They'll allow telephone companies to pay "reasonable costs" for all software and equipment upgrades to make this happen. Then these phone companies can send the bill to the Feds, and Uncle Same will pay them back all "reasonable costs" for the wiretap access.

Brilliant scheme, right? Except, what's wrong with this picture? First, there's absolutely no definition of reasonable cost. Second, although the government pays for it, where the hell does the government get its funds? That's right: Joe and Jane Taxpayer.

Or perhaps Clinton will simply cut the appropriations budget for the Headstart Program? Or how about trimming a few Cruise missiles from the procurement list? After all, as Dispatch has reported, someone is going to have to pony up more than $1 billion for all this. Talk about a budget buster.

Three Years or Yer Out

If the bill passes, and it must first find a sponsor, industry will have 3 years to comply with its mandates. But the heavy lifting is left to the switch manufacturers and equipment makers. Once they get their act together, all this software and hardware is turned over to the carriers to install. But they have to hustle: No grace period. Three years, max. And just for comparison sake, it's taken the phone companies more than 7 years to code in equal access dialing, a job that was supposed to take three.

If that wiretap deadline isn't met, the Feds can actually shut down the telephone network, a cable system or even computer networks like CompuServe. That aspect of the bill is "unconstitutional," says Jerry Berman, director of Washington office for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Injunction power over communications of the U.S. is a prior restraint and far too broad under the First Amendment," he said.

And if those sexy digital calling features such as call forwarding or ISDN applications foil the Feds *at all* they can demand that those services be *shut down* until they are brought into compliance. Oh yeah, and while all that complying is going on, the telephone companies get kicked in the ass to the tune of $10,000 per day. That's the motivation factor.

Senator Patrick Leahy said Congress "wants to ensure that the Administration's law enforcement goals are met." However, that can't be played off other concerns. "We can't jeopardize the legitimate concerns of business by empowering the attorney general to have the final say in how far and how fast technology advances," he said.

Of course, there's the National Security Agency to deal with here too, but nobody's saying a damn thing about them. The NSA, however, had a direct hand in helping craft this bill.

The White House meets Thursday with industry officials to break the news to them. The Administration will trot out the FBI to give its usually dog and pony show rap that "we need to stop child pornographers" so pass this bill. White House meetings with privacy and civil liberty groups takes place on Friday. Stay tuned...

Meeks out...