July 13, 2005 – With no fanfare and little notice, the federal government last week sought to significantly expand law enforcement officialsâ€™ ability to monitor the communications and other electronic activities of airline passengers.
In papers filed with the Federal Communications Commission last Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security requested that the Commission provide law enforcement agents with nearly instantaneous access to the electronic communications of airline passengers should broadband internet access and cellular phone use be permitted on United States-based airlines.
Current FCC regulations bar plane passengers from using cell phones while the craft is in flight. Domestic flights do not offer broadband Internet service, though some foreign airlines do, according to a Monday Wired News report. The Commission is considering how those rules might be changed.
Those deliberations prompted the three federal law enforcement agencies to file a 23-page request citing terrorism concerns and demanding that any such framework allow law enforcement officers to tap into the system within ten minutes of making a request to do so.
In their request, the agencies asserted that agents need the ability to pinpoint electronic signals coming from a specific seat and device in order to thwart potential hijackings, bombings or other threats.
In lodging the request, the Departments relied on an eleven-year-old law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), used for digital wiretaps. The FCC tentatively expanded the wiretap authority to reach the Internet last summer, on August 9.
By September, the FBI was congratulating a consortium of private companies, CableLabs, for developing the technology to facilitate broadband eavesdropping. A press release praised the product, PacketCable, as "the culmination of the cooperative endeavor between CableLabs and law enforcement."
CorpWatch, a watchdog website dedicated to providing the public information about corporations, reports that other companies known to be working on surveillance programs in tandem with law enforcement agencies include Microsoft and database giant Oracle, in addition to defense contractors and ChoicePoint, a company with a poor recent record of electronic security.
CALEA has been under fire from civil liberties and privacy advocates since it was conceived. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public advocacy organization focused on digital rights, warns that in addition to being a threat to privacy, applying CALEA to the Internet will stifle innovation, raise costs for the public and possibly leave Internet users more vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Any use of cell phones or broadband technology on planes in flight must also be approved of by the Federal Aviation Administration.