Bradner's column: When in Washington ...

The Internet Engineering Task Force went to Washington, DC, earlier this month and did what the Washingtonians do most often -- played politics.

We tried to figure out if we should put special features into our protocols to support wiretapping and other legal intercept methods. My view is that we came away with little support for the idea that the IETF should go out of its way to support legal intercept. But at the same time, there was not a consensus that we should prohibit all discussion of the topic.

The issue of the IETF doing work on legal intercept technologies came up as a byproduct of the extensive work that the IETF is now doing in the area of IP-based telephony. It should not come as a surprise that in many places around the world, including the US, telephone companies must be able to provide law enforcement with information about phone calls, such as who is calling whom and how long the call is, along with the audio stream from selected calls. Companies that build telephone equipment feel they must add features to their equipment to support these activities because their customers must be able to access such features.

Some traditional telephony standards organisations have supported this by adding intercept features to their telephony-related standards. Because the future of the telephone seems to be intertwined with the Internet, it is inevitable that the primary Internet standards organization would be faced with the issue sooner or later.

In the IETF's case, some participants in one of the working groups focusing on a new standard for communication between components of a distributed phone switch brought up the wiretapping issue. (Not the FBI, as was reported in some places.) Because adding features to support wiretapping would be an important change in direction, the IETF's management decided to have a public discussion before determining if the working group should go ahead.

A new mailing list was created (http://www.ietf.org/mailman/listinfo/raven) for this discussion. Close to 500 people subscribed to the list and about 10 percent of those sent at least one message to the list. The discussion on this list was a precursor to one held during the IETF plenary in Washington.

Twenty-nine people spoke during the plenary session. Opinions ranged from libertarian ("governments have no right to wiretap") to pragmatic ("it will be done somewhere, so best have it done where the technology was developed.") At the end of the discussion, there was a show of hands to indicate opinions: Should the IETF add special features, not do this or abstain? There was not much support for adding the intercept features, but enough people abstained that the IETF could not gauge a rough consensus (80 percent or more) against all such activities.

This was an interesting example of participatory democracy, and like many others, did not produce a clear result.

Disclaimer: Harvard has watched various forms of government come and go, and did not express an opinion on this issue.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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