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Higher ed fears wiretapping law

Oral arguments to be heard this week in ACE vs. FCC petition over CALEA.

By , Network World
May 01, 2006 12:02 AM ET

Network World - Institutions of higher education are up in arms over an FCC ruling on wiretapping they say could cost them billions of dollars in upgrades, expose their networks to more attacks, and jeopardize rights to privacy and freedom of speech.

A petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia could determine if higher-education networks - and perhaps private corporate networks - will be required to allow wiretapping by law enforcement agencies as soon as next year.

Oral arguments will be heard late this week in the petition of the American Council on Education (ACE) vs. the FCC, which was submitted in mid-March to the court. The petition is part of an ongoing appeal of the FCC's Sept. 23, 2005, ruling that extends the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) wiretapping order to broadband Internet providers and "interconnected" VoIP providers next year.

The higher-education community is concerned the FCC ruling does not distinguish between public and private networks, and could potentially extend the CALEA compliance requirement to university and enterprise networks.

"For university networks, the worst-case scenario . . . would mean potentially replacing every switch and router in our system," says Wendy Wigen, policy analyst at Educause, a nonprofit association promoting the use of IT in higher education. "Just for the hardware cost, we're looking at $400 to $500 per student, which is about a $7 billion price tag for all of the colleges in the United States."

Last fall's ruling does not state specifically that institutions of higher learning need comply with CALEA. It does not rule that out either. Because it extends the wiretapping order to facilities-based Internet access providers, CALEA by default includes colleges and universities, Wigen says. Broadband Internet access and VoIP providers have to be CALEA-compliant by May 14, 2007, the FCC says.

"Under the old CALEA . . . universities were exempt because they were considered a private network," she says. "But when law enforcement wanted CALEA extended to Internet service providers, they did not distinguish between private and public - they said anyone who supplies a connection to the public Internet will have to be CALEA-compliant. Well, on university campuses that's one of our main functions."

A spokesman at the FCC said the commission has reached no conclusion on the issue of university compliance. Some college network officials, however, see the binary digits on the wall.

"It seems to me at some point it will have to apply to us because we look somewhat like an ISP to the university," says Brian Jones, manager of network engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's Tech's Communications Network Services unit in Blacksburg. "I don't know how it could not apply to us at some point."

That prompts officials to want to dissect the law thoroughly to assess its full impact.

"The position that it would be an onerous financial burden . . . we are cost-conscious, academic freedom is a cornerstone of the higher [education] ethos, and we are profoundly network-dependent," says Lesley Tolman, director of networks and telecom at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "Those three qualities alone make us look at CALEA very critically. We take its implications very seriously."

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