Universities Face Costs of Making Wiretaps Easier for Feds

American Council on Education says cost to allow wiretaps by FCC would be about $450 per student


College and university leaders say they are concerned about the expansion of a federal wiretapping law meant to make it easier for authorities to monitor online activity.

The American Council on Education says the cost to upgrade campus computer networks to allow that kind of access could be $7 billion, or about $450 per student.

But Oklahoma institutions may be in better shape than many other states, said Kurt Snodgrass, chief operating officer of OneNet, the state division that supplies Internet service to public schools and universities.

OneNet recently spent about $8 million upgrading its system.

"We're somewhat fortunate, the upgrades we did a few years ago of routers and switches positions us more favorably," Snodgrass said. "There'd still be some investment in services and software."

The Federal Communication Commission expanded a 1994 federal order in August to make it more difficult for criminals to use emerging technology to avoid arrest.

Universities and other providers of high-speed Internet access and Voice Over Internet Protocol service have until May 2007 to comply with new provisions of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.

Those changes are on hold, pending challenges to the FCC order by the education council and some Internet service providers in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. No timeline has been set for a decision.

Some in the higher education community have asked to be exempt from the changes, citing the cost and security concerns.

"Everybody is waiting to see what happens before we react to it," Snodgrass said. "I'm going to be cautiously optimistic that we get the exemption."

Former U.S. Attorney Robert McCampbell said the FCC's decision was an important one for law enforcement.

As a former law enforcement officer, he said he noticed criminals - particularly terrorists - becoming more savvy about new technology.

McCampbell said he is worried about the explosion in people using Internet telephones, which are more difficult for authorities to intercept.

Broader resources The FCC decision, which was spurred by a Justice Department request, provides more resources for authorities to investigate crime or potential terrorists because it broadens their ability to monitor electronic communications, he said. Judges still are required to approve wiretaps, McCampbell said, so the new requirements shouldn't spur any civil rights or privacy issues.

Although McCampbell favors the changes to the wiretap law, he questioned the 18-month timeline for compliance set by the FCC.

"I'm not convinced that is fair or necessary," McCampbell said.

Representatives from the state's three largest universities say they are taking a wait-and-see approach and not investing money in new technology.

"This is one of those that the higher education community isn't 100 percent clear on our requirements," said Cynthia Rolfe, vice president of information technology for the University of Central Oklahoma.

Campus wiretaps are rare Dennis Aebersold, the University of Oklahoma's vice president for information technology, said OU will comply with any lawful surveillance requests, but he doesn't think Congress ever intended that universities be subject to online wiretap provisions.

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