Security analysts have warned that moves by the internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to modify internet protocols in order to allow wiretapping could have serious repercussions for the security of all corporate networks. Law enforcement demands for surveillance of voice traffic carried over the internet have changed the IETF's long-held stance of avoiding major debates about the internet. But the IETF now has been thrust into a major controversy as it considers whether to allow wiretapping to be included in the next incarnation of the protocol - IPv6. A special session of the IETF met last week in Washington to consider law enforcement demands against communications security and personal privacy in the development of the new protocol. It's good to listen The main question is whether the IETF should develop new protocols, or modify existing ones, to allow wiretapping. If it takes no overall action it is feared that individual governments may develop proprietary technology that is less secure. The IETF would have no say in the development of such processes. However, UK security analysts and ISPs have said that the threat of splintered technologies is not argument enough to justify wiretapping. Brian Gladman, technical advisor to the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said the debate on wiretapping is similar to that over encryption backdoors because both affect security. "If you build in wiretapping, you build in security weaknesses," he said. Gladman, a former Nato deputy technical director, expects a groundswell of opposition to development or modification of protocols. Neil Barrett, technical director of consultant Information Risk Management, said any decision to allow wire-tapping would be a knee-jerk reaction: "This panders to the hysterical perceptions of what is, arguably, a non-existent threat." He added: "There is no argument for taking away civil liberties to make the job of policing easier." ISPs are also protesting against the cost implications of Government plans to extend the Interception of Communications Act to include internet traffic. Keith Mitchell, chairman of the main exchange point for UK ISPs, London Internet Exchange (LINX), said: "This is a heavy handed attempt by law enforcement authorities to set the agenda. It will increase the cost of equipment and create weaknesses." US Law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, have welcomed the debate. The FBI said standards should support lawful wiretaps or else ISPs would be unable to comply with court orders. Barry Smith, supervisory special agent in the FBI's Digital Telephony and Encryption policy unit said that public safety could be put at risk if wiretapping the internet was not made possible soon: "If court-authorised wiretaps are frustrated, effective law enforcement is jeopardised and public safety is jeopardised," said Smith. The US debate, which is likely to have a lasting effect on web privacy, has pitted firms like Nortel and Lucent - which, because of regulations, may need to market wiretap friendly products, in contrast to privacy advocates and the libertarian IETF. A mailing list created by the IETF, which advocates a 'pragmatic' approach that accommodates law-enforcement requirements, states that a 1994 law - the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), may require companies offering voice over IP to support surveillance. Republican Congressman Bob Barr strongly disagrees with this view, and said there is no reason for the IETF to support wiretapping in the next generation of internet protocols, and that doing so would be "dangerous". Cry freedom Barr, in a letter to IETF chairman Fred Baker, said: "For the sake of protecting freedom, commerce, and privacy on the internet, I urge you to draw the line firmly by immediately rejecting any attempts to force a cumbersome, expensive, and dangerous surveillance architecture on the internet," Barr predicted that if the IETF complies with FBI wishes, online privacy would be endangered through back doors in products, law enforcement agencies would demand more infiltration rights in future and the costs to end-users would rise. Baker, a Cisco engineer, agreed with Barr's position but added that since the issue has already arisen in the IETF media gateway control working group, a position had to be agreed upon by the entire IETF. "As internet voice becomes a wider deployed reality, it is only logical that the subject has to come up. We decided to bring it up rather than reacting to something later." Baker said. He added that it would be premature to second-guess the outcome of the debate, which places technology professionals in the unusual position of having to take a political stand.
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