FBI raises the cost of VoIP

The FBI wants to increase the cost of Voice over IP. The VoIP news article has a set of excellent questions that someone ought to be asking the FBI as they seek to extend existing wiretap requirements to VoIP companies. Not only will it increase the cost of commercial VoIP software by requiring those firms to install wiretap backdoors in their systems, the whole exercise is absurd. Here's why.

  • As VoIP News asks, why would criminals use a commercial VoIP offering that was known to have a wiretap backdoor when they could just as easily use their own secure VoIP software. Dozens of VoIP software products are completely free and can be downloaded and installed easily.
  • Some VoIP providers are located outside the U.S., beyond the jurisdiction of the FBI. Why would anyone use a higher-priced U.S. service if a less expensive offshore service with equivalent voice quality is available? Why would international drug rings ever use U.S. services if the FBI has their finger in them? One effect of FBI regulation will be to drive the entire VoIP business out of the United States.
  • Wiretapping only the VoIP data streams of suspected criminals is, well, just dumb. If I were trying to investigate criminal behavior, I'd want to capture their entire data stream. And the FBI can do this now, just by going to the criminal's ISP with a court order and getting the ISP to re-transmit to the FBI every data packet coming from the criminal. This is trivial to do, does not require expensive new software, and is much more likely to provide useful information, since you'd also see email, Web sites, chat, IRC, and any other communications, along with VoIP conversations.

So what's really going on? Occam's Razor may be useful here (the simplest explanation is probably the correct one). Recall that this is the same FBI that just spend $170 million of our tax dollars on a "Virtual Case File" system that does not work. In other words, the FBI has neither good in-house technology advice nor do they seem capable of buying it. Like many other Federal government agencies, when the FBI wants technology, they run to the beltway bandits--the big consulting firms that inhabit the D.C. area, who have a built in conflict of interest when asked by those same agencies to both design and build systems.

Here's the problem--if you are a company that lives on huge government contracts, when asked to design a new information system, you are not likely to come up with something cheap, fast, and easily extensible if you also get to build the system. Instead you are going to design the mother of all information systems--one that requires years to build, needs lots of "research" to complete, and requires huge maintenance and support contracts. A perfect example of this kind of mentality is the 20 years and still counting air traffic control system that FAA contractors can't finish.

Bottom line--the FBI is way off base here, for some very basic technical reasons, and our elected representatives need to read them the riot act for squashing innovation, driving our businesses offshore, and increasing the cost of voice service for citizens and businesses--for no good reason.

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