Another Internet wiretapping twist

Cable ISP customers are not better protected than others. 8/27 ReleVents hed: Another Internet wiretapping twist dek: Cable ISP customers are not better protected than others. by James Mathewson

We have covered the Carnivore issue in this space and elsewhere ad nauseum. The central kernel of the issue, as I see it, is not with the DCS 1000 technology per se. The problem lies with how it is used. Currently, wiretap laws designed to govern analogue phone investigations do not adequately address digital signals over any communications medium. If the Carnivore scare does nothing else, it should spur legislation to update electronic surveillance laws to adequately protect citizens from government snooping.

A news story on our site today puts a new twist on this issue and further underscores the need for updated wiretapping laws. Currently, cable companies are governed by two contradictory laws when it comes to this issue. The Cable Act of 1984 states that cable companies are prohibited from disclosing information about their customers under any circumstances. The ironically named 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) in effect forces ISPs (cable or otherwise) to turn over confidential customer information in response to a court order while at the same time barring the ISP from notifying the targeted customer.

Recently, a federal judge clarified that the 1986 law trumps the 1984 law, thereby requiring Cablevision (and all other cable companies) to give up its records in response to a court order. The upshot: Cable companies can no longer provide safe harbor from government surveillance.

While I acknowledge that some wiretapping needs to go on to apprehend legitimate criminals, the idea that our current wiretapping laws give law enforcement officials access to private information of the innocent is too disturbing to consider. Further, the government’s reluctance to appropriately update laws regarding Internet traffic is more than disturbing. Perhaps a gentle push to your congressman or senator on this issue can at least get a dialogue going in Washington.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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