Government surveillance could cost UAA millions

Big Brother is watching. At least he soon will be if the Federal Communications Commission gets its way.

UAA could be forced to spend millions to upgrade its computer network so law enforcement can tap into it for court-ordered surveillance if a new decision by the FCC stands.

On Aug. 5, the FCC voted to extend the compliance requirements of the Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, to include all facilities-based internet providers.

The ruling is the first step in a two-part decision by the FCC, which is reviewing complaints by numerous higher-education interest groups that have protested the change. A final decision is expected in the next several months.

At this point law enforcement is able to tap into campus networks and collect information by physically going to campuses and linking to the networks, which is a very time-intensive task. The revision will allow agencies to conduct remote surveillance of a suspect on campus in real-time, and they say this will significantly speed up the process.

Richard Whitney, chief information officer at UAA, thinks the cost of upgrading the system, which he said could be as much as $10 million, would be disruptive to UAA’s other activities.

Whitney said law enforcement has never requested wire-tapping from UAA, and rarely does so for universities in general. Therefore, he said the upgrade is unnecessary.

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“There’s a belief that – since we’re already responding well [to surveillance requests], and the incidence is very, very low – this type of compliance and the cost associated with it would be an undue burden,” Whitney said.

Whitney said universities are pushing for exemption, or at least a longer time frame to become CALEA compliant in order to ease the financial burden.

CALEA currently requires institutions to become compliant within 18 months of the decision by the FCC.

“There’s really no source of funding for it,” Whitney said. “Obviously, if the university was forced to comply with the ruling, [UAA] would have to go back to the legislature, raise tuition, or reallocate existing resources in order to try to cover it, because what the ruling says is that any organization that operates a network such as ours would have to be in compliance.”

Many universities think the FCC shouldn’t have the authority to force them to pay for upgrades, which will be detrimental to universities’ finances nationwide.

“There’s some belief that the FCC has overstepped its bounds in extending the rulemaking,” he said. “In fact, what the American Council on Education is asking is that the FCC take it back to Congress and allow Congress to deal with it.”

Whitney said Congress would likely modify the language of the bill and could possibly subsidize the measure in part.

Law enforcement agencies pushed for the measure because with it they could get faster access to e-mails and other modes of digital communication needed in pursuing terrorists, sex-offenders and criminals in general.

The change in monitoring will allow them to conduct surveillance more easily because remote, real-time surveillance would allow law-enforcement to capture information packets as they are sent.

“The intent would be to set up something almost like a light-switch capability, so that when [law enforcement] contacts the university and say they need to do some wire-tapping, literally the university would flip a switch and it would all start to take place,” he said.

Congress originally passed CALEA in 1994 to help assist law enforcement conduct electronic surveillance by requiring telecommunications carriers to modify their systems to more easily facilitate law enforcement’s ability to tap into the system.

At the time, colleges and universities were deemed exempt because they were considered private networks. However, the new decision states that because universities connect to the public Internet, the Act will apply to them as well.

The American Council on Education filed a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals on Oct. 24, which will allow the group to appeal the FCC’s decision if it requires universities to be fully compliant with CALEA, according to Educause’s Web site.

Educause is a non-profit organization that specializes in information technology issues, which UAA and hundreds of other institutions nationwide belong to. The organization estimates CALEA upgrades for all institutions around the country could cost as much as $7 billion.

Mark Luker, who handles federal policy initiatives for Educause, could not be reached for comment.

Meghan Stapleton, director of corporate communications for ACS, said CALEA very much affects her company.

“Every day, ACS receives requests for information from law enforcement,” she wrote in an e-mail response. “We have an entire department to handle subpoenas and court-order compliance. While we watch the FCC with interest, we do not disclose any detailed information regarding finances or budgets for CALEA.”

John Roberts, a network technician for the Municipality of Anchorage, said the city would not be affected by the FCC’s decision, although compliance wouldn’t be much of an issue for them. That’s because unlike UAA, which is more dispersed, the municipality only has two internet connections-a general government and a public connection.

“If the Municipality were required to allow remote surveillance, we wouldn’t have much trouble,” he said. “Most of the regulations that affected the libraries were because of Patriot Act-type acts.”

Chelsea Harshbarger, a student and the prime minister of secretarial affairs for USUAA, said she thought the cost of the upgrade could prove useful, despite the fact that UAA has not yet been tapped into.

“I think it’s a good idea that we have that resource, the ability for law enforcement to conduct surveillance,” she said. “Just because it hasn’t been requested yet doesn’t mean it won’t ever be necessary. I think it’s essential to helping find suspects.”