Wiretapping VoIP… again

Once again the FBI and the Justice Department efforts to wiretap voice conversations carried over the Internet is making news. I briefly talked about this last July when the same thing came up. Obviously the feds want to keep this in the news.

Others have mentioned this item and hailed it as important and valid in the name of Homeland Security. Security and public safety are all well and good, but like most attempts at making things better in the name of Homeland Security we are jumping to conclusions about its effectiveness and effects.

Many people say if you’re not breaking any laws why be concerned? I’ll let others argue the privacy issues of wiretapping in gerneral. What’s a bigger concern for me is, first, that here we go again with the feds promoting something and the public and many ‘experts’ accepting it without question to the effectiveness. More tax-money dumped without anyone asking if the ideas being proposed actually addresses the public safety issues or whether perhaps, in reality, it does more harm than good, like any number of the plans proposed (and many laws adopted) in the wake of 9/11.

And then there are technical issues, which are not just geek fodder, but which lead immediately to economic and social issues, that people that should know better are simply glossing over. If the statement “wiretap VoIP” meant something specific and concrete, as it does in the PSTN, it would be one thing. However, the reality is far more complicated than that.

The problem is that there no single definition of “wiretap” with VoIP technology, as there is (at least to a much larger degree) in the traditional PSTN. Below are some of the key technical challenges:

  • Pure SIP is intended to be a peer-to-peer technology, where the VoIP providers don

2 comments for “Wiretapping VoIP… again

  1. Regarding your comment that after the call is setup further communication is directly between the two end-points, I would like to bring to your attention that it is more of an exception. Most require a SBC, in the name of NAT traversal. For example FWD operates this way. For that matter this is the case even for Skype. That device is not under the control of Skype is another matter.

  2. Aswath, that *may* be true today. However, I would suggest that SIP products are getting better about NAT and implementing things like STUN and more and more calls will be P2P prospectively. Use of the service provider NAT media relay is optional with FWD and IPTEL even today. Not all calls go through the NAT media gateway. If your edge device supports NAT handling, you don’t need to use the gateway. What I’ve been told is that about 15% of the calls require the media gateway (the rest go peer-to-peer). And in fact with FWD, according to their on-line forums, their gateways are already getting overloaded and more users are trying to bypass them by enabling edge-based NAT handling (smarter SIP devices and/or proper configuration).

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