Internet phone calls, terrorism and finding the balance for law enforcement

The Times of London is out today with a provocatively titled piece: “Internet phone calls are crippling fight against terrorism” and leads with this:

The huge growth in internet telephone traffic is jeopardising the capability of police to investigate almost every type of crime, senior sources have told The Times.

As more and more phone calls are routed over the web – using software such as Skype – police are losing the ability to track who has called whom, from where and for how long.

The key difficulty facing police is that, unlike mobile phone companies, which retain call data for billing purposes, internet call companies have no reason to keep the material.

And goes on to mention issues security officials have with the new world of online communication:

At present security and intelligence agencies can demand to see telephone and e-mail traffic from communication service providers, such as mobile telephone companies. But rapid expansion of new providers, such as gaming, social networking, auction and video sites, and technologies, such as wireless internet and broadband, present a serious problem for the police, MI5, Customs and other government agencies.

Communications data is now a key weapon in securing convictions of both terrorists and serious criminals. It also plays a central role in investigations into kidnappings and inquiries into missing and vulnerable people.

It is indeed a challenging problem. How do government security services exercise their legitimate need to have access to some communications-related data in the pursuit of a crime when the communications providers are no longer easy to identify?

In the old days of just the PSTN, the communications carriers were easy to identify and easy to work with… in the sense that jurisdiction was usually rather clear since the provider was based in the country where the communication was taking place. Government security services could work with those companies to be able to do lawful intercept and other such actions.

VoIP changes all of that. From a technical perspective, geography goes out the window. You can use a software product created by a company from anywhere in the world to communicate with someone else. It can be encrypted. It can use different protocols. It can be unencrypted yet go over an encrypted VPN.


And without central control, there is no central way for a government agency to be able to easily obtain that communications data.

So what do you do? Do you create (and somehow futilely attempt to enforce?) draconian and Orwellian legislation that gives government agencies extremely broad powers to access Internet-carried information? (As it sounds like is happening in the UK?) Do you try to have industry entities voluntarily assist security agencies? Do you give up and admit that it’s next to impossible to really get all this kind of information?

There’s a balance to be struck somewhere in there – and finding that balance is going to be one of the toughest policy issues we all will confront over the next few years.

I can see both sides… as a strong privacy advocate, I do not want the government to have broad powers to intercept and view Internet traffic – the potential for abuse and mis-use is far too high in my opinion. Yet at the same time as a father and husband I can assure you that if something were ever to happen to any of my family, I would want law enforcement to have access to every tool imaginable to track down the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Where’s the line? What’s the right approach?

No easy answers…

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1 thought on “Internet phone calls, terrorism and finding the balance for law enforcement

  1. M Dundas

    I agree with your comments … where do you draw the line? Personally, I think we need to stop focusing on technology and more on the investigation. Regardless of what laws are put in place in countries or even internationally, the bad guys that are serious (terrorists, drug trafficers, etc. etc..) will always find a way around these things. Yes, tools and laws help, but good investigation with people, knowledge and time, is the way to beat it.

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