The Edwards/Leahy Digital Telephony Legislation

(HR 4922/S 2375)

The United States government believes that it has an inalienable right to listen to our private conversations, and that all telephone systems must have provisions for this designed in or retrofitted. Furthermore, they expect us to pay for it.

They claim that the purpose of this law is to allow them to retain the capabilities that they've had in the past. In actuallity, none of the new digital telephone systems with which they claim to be concerned actually impede their ability to implement court-ordered wiretaps. The reality is that rather than having to bother with actually driving down to the phone company's switching office to install a tap, they want to be able to press a few buttons from the comfort of their own offices, and tap any phone they want. Of course, they would never forget to obtain a warrant first.

What's more, they are spending $500 million of our money to do it. Early versions of the bill would have required the telecom industry to pay the costs. The current version requires the government to fund it, but don't forget that we foot the bill either way.

The Justice Department states that they use fewer than a thousand wiretaps per year. The bill therefore is authorizing the expenditure of $125,000 per wiretap. If the government really needs to spend $500 million on crime prevention there have to be better ways to spend it. Imagine how many new FBI agents could be hired for $125 million per year.

It is mind boggling that congress actually delivered this much power (and potential for abuse) into the hands of the executive branch. Didn't it occur to any of them that it might actually be used against them by a future corrupt administration? I guess they must have been taken in by all the claims that child abuse and terrorism will run rampant if the bill weren't passed. I certainly am opposed to child abuse and terrorism, but I don't think that wiretaps are the only way (or even a particularly effective way) to prevent it. In fact, there is actually no hard evidence that wiretaps have ever been the least bit useful against these particular crimes.

Perry E. Metzger has written an excellent parable that illustrates the historical nature of wiretaps. Remember that the police haven't always had the ability to easily listen to private conversations; it is actually a recent innovation.

For information about the funding for this fiasco, check out Brock N. Meeks' article Riding a Straw Horse in CyberWire Dispatch.

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Last updated February 24, 1999

Copyright 1995, 1999 Eric Smith

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