Under surveillance

In an attempt to keep up with the rapidly evolving world of telecommunications, the federal government has updated an 11-year-old wiretapping law to extend to universities, libraries and other institutions that offer internet access.


Portland State’s network, which allows its users to connect within it or beyond it, falls under the jurisdiction of the broadened law. Under the law, the university will have to upgrade its network systems to make it easier to monitor internet and e-mail communications.


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) updated the Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, after a government petition requested it do so. The Department of Justice, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency filed the petition in an effort to “preserve law enforcement’s ability to conduct lawfully-authorized electronic surveillance,” according to the FBI’s CALEA web site.


“I haven’t found one person who doesn’t oppose it,” said Mark Gregory, executive director of Information Technologies at Portland State. “I am the one to take a position on it [at Portland State], and I’m against it.”


The 1994 law does have many detractors in the educational system, including the American Council on Education, but most find fault with the costs it places on universities, not its goal of aiding law enforcement. Gregory is among them.


“It’s not about not wanting to help them,” he said. “It’s the way they’re doing it.” He compared the law’s new requirements to the FBI forcing the university to reserve several parking spaces that they will never use.


Educause, a non-profit association that promotes the use of information technology to further higher education, claims that requiring every university to redesign their networks “just in case” a need for surveillance arises is not in the public interest.


They argue that compliance with the law would “impose an unreasonable financial burden, including the costs of education and impacting innovation, with no guarantee of better security for our nation.”


The American Council on Education had similar doubts when they filed an appeal in a federal appellate court on Oct. 24. The appeal challenges the extension of CALEA.


Compliance with the law must be met sometime in the spring of 2007. According to a recent New York Times article, the FCC is “considering whether to exempt educational institutions from some of the law’s provisions, but it has not granted an extension for compliance.”


The battle in the courts will likely expedite the decision on whether universities must comply or not. When originally written, dial-up was the main medium the internet traveled on. With the advent of broadband and wireless, crime-fighting authorities have been left wanting for a way to track criminals in a high-tech world. With the provisions, the grinding pace of the slow hulk of government is attempting to gather the steam needed to catch up with a quickly evolving industry.


Currently there is no surveillance of internet use at Portland State. The capability to do so is there, but, according to Kris Amundson, it is “more of a help desk issue.”


Amundson, a network engineer who helped to install and still maintains Portland State’s network, said a person’s internet traffic can be monitored but only with authorization from that person. Also, the system has no capability for storing history of any traffic. That is, it can monitor a person’s internet use as they use it, but once they are finished there is no record of it. Other taps on the system monitor for viruses.


Neither Amundson nor Gregory were willing speculate on the potential cost of redesigning Portland State’s network, but both said it would be substantial. Gregory said that no matter what the cost, it would come from an already “shallow pocket,” and that other services, such as internet connection speed or even security, would likely suffer.


Gregory, who had a copy of the new FCC rules sitting next to his keyboard, has hope that the government will compromise with universities and find a cheaper and more effective way to tap university networks. He believes this contentious issue will work itself out.

“I think this will blow over,” he said.