By Kevin Poulsen
Federal law enforcement officials, fearful that terrorists will
exploit emerging in-flight broadband services to remotely activate
bombs or coordinate hijackings, are asking regulators for the power to
begin eavesdropping on any passenger's internet use within 10 minutes
of obtaining court authorization.
In joint comments filed with the FCC last Tuesday, the Justice
Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned
that a terrorist could use on-board internet access to communicate
with confederates on other planes, on the ground or in different
sections of the same plane -- all from the comfort of an aisle seat.
"There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken
to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis
situations on board an aircraft, and law enforcement needs to maximize
its ability to respond to these potentially lethal situations," the
The Justice Department hopes to do that with an FCC ruling that
satellite-based in-flight broadband services are bound by the 1994
Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, the federal law
that required telephone companies to modify their networks to be
wiretap-friendly for the FBI.
CALEA was originally passed to preserve the Bureau's ability to
eavesdrop on telephone calls in the digital age. But last year the FBI
and Justice Department persuaded the FCC to interpret the law so it
would apply to internet traffic over cable modems and DSL lines. The
FCC has already expressed the view that in-flight broadband would
likely be covered as well.
The Justice Department is asking the commission to require that
air-to-ground internet taps be equipped "forthwith, but in no
circumstance more than 10 minutes" after the FBI requests them.
The filing comes as the FCC considers implementing a licensing scheme
that would encourage more companies to enter the satellite-based
in-flight broadband market. Currently, only Boeing is licensed to
provide such services.
Boeing's Connexion system lets passengers plug in to a wired ethernet
jack or connect wirelessly over 802.11b, and is available on select
flights on a handful of international carriers, including Lufthansa,
Singapore Airlines and Korean Air. No U.S. carrier has announced plans
to offer the service.
In addition to seeking the rapid-tap technology, the Justice
Department filing asks the FCC to require carriers to maintain
fine-grained control over their airborne broadband links. This would
include the ability to quickly and automatically identify every
internet user by name and seat number, remotely cut off a passenger's
internet access, cut off all passengers' access without affecting the
flight crew's access, or redirect communications to and from the
aircraft in the event of a crisis.
Officials also expressed concern that terrorists might use in-flight
broadband to remotely trigger a bomb hidden on a plane. They asked the
FCC to keep such services from being accessible from the cargo hull of
"The ability to turn on a broadband-enabled communications device
located on board an aircraft ... presents the possibility that either
a passenger or someone on the ground could reliably remotely activate
a broadband-enabled communications device in flight and use that
device as an RCIED (remote-controlled improvised explosive device),"
the filing says.
Forrester Research analyst Brownlee Thomas supports the Justice
Department's proposal, but admits it would raise the barrier of entry
for companies wanting to enter the in-flight broadband market.
"It does favor the largest players in this space," says Thomas. "I
would go so far as to suggest that I think it is the Justice
Department's intention to ensure that the doors are not open too wide
on this, for the requirement of national security ... that actually
makes perfect sense."
Despite their safety concerns, federal agencies are generally bullish
on airborne broadband, lauding its potential to enhance communications
between the air and the ground during a crisis.
Copyright 2005, Lycos, Inc. and Wired Magazine.
Lycos is a trademark of Carnegie Mellon University.
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