Electronic Design

Cellular Industry Challenges FCC Privacy Ruling On Surveillance

Backed by a diverse range of group interests, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) filed briefs in a court case challenging an FCC order that requires telecom providers to adapt their systems to support extensive police surveillance capabilities. The other challengers include the Center for Democracy and Technology and the United States Telecom Association, in concert with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), Congress directed the industry to support a narrowly defined set of capabilities. These capabilities were limited to the interception of telephone calls made by criminal suspects and the monitoring of numbers dialed by telephone users. After direct FBI appeals, though, the FCC expanded the scope of these surveillance capabilities beyond what Congress decided in CALEA.

For example, the FCC requires telecom carriers to report to law-enforcement officials the physical location of wireless telephone customers who are under surveillance. This effectively turns every mobile telephone into an electronic tracking device that can be activated without the knowledge or consent of the phone's owner.

The FCC also permits police to receive information about any digits dialed after a call is connected. These could be account or credit-card numbers, or voice-mail passwords. Additionally, the FCC allows the government to intercept communications carried on digital packet networks, whether or not the person under surveillance is even suspected of a crime, and whether or not police have properly obtained the warrant required by Congress and the Fourth Amendment.

The industry and privacy groups challenging the order hope that after the case is argued in May, the court will reverse the invasive aspects of the FCC rulings. The groups feel the order is full of holes and that the agency exceeded the authority given to it by Congress. They also believe the FCC neglected its duty to explain its decisions sensibly, and clearly misinterpreted CALEA.

TAGS: Mobile
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