U.S. seeks secrecy in cable wiretaps

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Attorney General John Ashcroft last week urged lawmakers to adopt legislation that would ax a law that cable operators insist requires them to notify subscribers before allowing federal authorities to tap into their broadband telephone and Internet lines.
The provision at issue, included in the Cable Act of 1984, was intended to prevent unauthorized monitoring of a cable subscriber’s TV viewing-at a time when cable’s offerings were limited to TV.
But now that many cable operators are also in the telephone and Internet access businesses, the Justice Department said cable operators have been citing the loophole to justify refusal of court-ordered wiretaps, putting a whammy on the nation’s investigative abilities.
“Cable providers have refused to comply with lawful court orders, thereby slowing or ending critical investigations,” the department said, in a legislative analysis of the measure.
A spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said the cable industry supported the attorney general’s initiative, which would subject cable’s subscribers to the same sort of surreptitious surveillance that subscribers to noncable telephone and Internet services already face.
“We haven’t refused to comply,” said an NCTA spokesman. “What we’ve done is explain that there is a discrepancy and we were caught between a rock and a hard place. This proposal would eliminate that ambiguity and provide certainty.”
Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, charged that the cable industry’s support for the proposal could be less than completely altruistic-because it serves what he alleged is the industry’s interest in diluting the privacy protection of cable subscribers.
“Cable wants to collect personal information from consumers for its own marketing purposes,” he said.
But an NCTA spokesman said the legal provision at issue had nothing to do with personal identifiable information. “Mr. Chester is flat wrong,” the NCTA spokesman said.
The cable TV provision is included in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, a Justice Department-backed bill that was debated in Congress last week. “Every day that passes with outdated statutes and the old rules of engagement is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage,” said Mr. Ashcroft during congressional hearings. “We cannot wait for terrorists to strike to begin investigations and make arrests. The death tolls are too high, the consequences too great. We must prevent first, prosecute second.”