Universities balk at computer security rules
By Sam Dillon and Stephen Labaton The New York Times
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2005
NEW YORK The U.S. government, vastly extending the reach of an 11-year-old law, is requiring hundreds of universities, online communications companies and cities to overhaul their Internet computer networks to make it easier for law enforcement authorities to monitor e-mail and other online communications
The action, which the government says is intended to help catch terrorists and other criminals, has unleashed protests and the threat of lawsuits from universities, which argue that it will cost them at least $7 billion while doing little to apprehend lawbreakers.
Because the government would have to win court orders before beginning surveillance, the universities are not raising civil liberties issues.
The order, issued by the Federal Communications Commission in August, and first published in the Federal Register, the official publication of rules and notices from U.S. government agencies, last week, extends the provisions of a 1994 wiretap law not only to universities, but also to libraries, airports providing wireless service, commercial Internet access providers and municipalities that provide Internet access to residents.
So far, however, universities have been most vocal in their opposition. "It seems like overkill to make all these institutions spend this huge amount of money for a just-in-case kind of scenario," said Larry Conrad, chief information officer at Florida State University.
The 1994 law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, requires telephone carriers to engineer their switching systems at their own cost so that federal agents can obtain easy surveillance access. The order requires that organizations like universities providing Internet access also comply with the law by spring 2007.
The Justice Department requested the order last year, saying that technologies like telephone service over the Internet were endangering law enforcement officers' ability to conduct wiretaps.
Justice Department officials, who declined to comment for this article, said in their written comments filed with the commission that the new requirements were necessary to keep the 1994 law "viable in the face of the monumental shift of the telecommunications industry" and to enable law enforcement to "accomplish its mission in the face of rapidly advancing technology."
Lawyers for the American Council on Education, the largest U.S. association of universities and colleges, are preparing to appeal, Terry Hartle, a senior vice president of the council, said Friday.
The universities do not question the government's right to monitor terrorism or criminal suspects on college campuses, Hartle said, only the rapid timetable for compliance and high cost.
Technology experts retained by the schools estimated that it could cost universities at least $7 billion just to buy the Internet switches and routers necessary for compliance. That figure does not include installation or the costs of hiring and training staff to oversee the circuitry 24 hours a day as the law requires.