Privacy fears over wiretapping overblown

    Seven years before the events of Sept. 11 and the passage of the USA Patriot Act, Congress passed a law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. This act ensured that communication lines, such as land lines and cell phones, be equipped to be capable of surveillance. The Federal Communications Commission announced in August that all phone calls made over the Internet should likewise be subject to the CALEA regulations.

    Naturally, the networks at higher education institutions across the country are now expected to comply. However, the American Council on Education has submitted a list of complaints concerning the new requirements. Perhaps the most worrisome and legitimate complaint is the high cost of revamping the entire networking systems of hundreds of universities. With many campuses strapped for cash, an uninvited demand to undertake a daunting technical project is not heartily welcomed. Considering that CALEA was passed in the interest of national security and law enforcement, it’s hardly presumptuous to request that such broad-based goals come packaged with funding from the federal government, instead of requiring individual universities to absorb the expense.

    Granted, money does not grow on trees in Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, the cost and bother it will take for the process to be carried out is significant, and the dump-it-and-deal-with-it project that is lumped on universities should be accompanied by some form of compromise, financial aid or support services to carry out the process.

    The A.C.E. and others have also voiced fears that student privacy might be violated. This concern is not totally unfounded, and as an indicator of Americans’ still-persistent Jeffersonian strain of suspicion regarding such meddling from the government, should not be totally disregarded.

    However, fears of privacy violation are often exaggerated. It may be disconcerting to think about the FBI listening in on a student’s internet voice chats, but what does the Big Brother bogeyman actually do? Have people been persecuted or spied on for chatting with their friends about their drunken stupor of the night before, or about how they shoplifted that bobble head from Sav-On? The FBI, CIA and other government agencies, I assure you, do not give a flip about you, and they are not going to waste their time and resources spying on you.

    The FBI makes a good point in the necessity of such a system: Terrorists are not dimwitted, and could easily use internet calling services to communicate. In a society as large, complex, and yes, private as ours, law enforcement should have the ability to investigate suspects and gather intelligence — and it defies reason for this to apply to older technologies but not the rapidly expanding communication systems of the Information Age.

    However, some people may be uncomfortable with the idea of anyone listening in, no matter what the conversation is about. Such people would be wise to avoid doing a number of other things when possible, including chatting with a friend in a café or even keeping a journal. Yet it is true that the excessive paranoia of such individuals keeps the government very much at bay from trying anything that really would be cause for concern — the unusually paranoid among us, strangely, give the rest of the country the gift of not having to be so paranoid ourselves.

    Ultimately, it seems appropriate for some kind of assistance, monetary or otherwise, to be offered to the universities in the bother it will take to implement these systems. But if assistance is not forthcoming, the university ought to do what it can to bear the cost. With the considerable need for improvements in intelligence, the university community is hardly the most destitute segment of the populace, nor do the privacy rights of students with fast internet connections differ in any way from the privacy rights of a homeowner with an old-fashioned rotary phone.

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