DOJ seeks wiretap access for cell phone calls on planes

Von Todd R.

If cell phones and other handheld wireless devices are allowed to be used on aircraft by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice wants built-in terrorism-fighting capabilities to allow fast wiretaps and quick ways to disconnect conversations between terrorists.

In a 23-page brief, four Justice Department officials submitted comments on the proposed rule changes to the FCC last week. The comments, which reflect concerns from the DOJ, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, come ahead of a hearing Thursday on the issue before the House Subcommittee on Aviation.

The rules change allowing cell phones to be used on airplanes was proposed by the FCC in December.

In the brief, the DOJ officials said they support efficient use of wireless services, but they want to be sure the government can monitor criminal and terrorist activities. DOJ officials also said that if cell phone use is permitted on airplanes, they want to make sure law enforcement authorities can quickly intercept suspected terrorist communications by cell phone or onboard Internet access.

"The Departments believe that the timely roll-out of new commercial airborne communications capabilities can be accomplished in a responsible manner ... which both encourages and rewards private sector investment and expedited development, while addressing the Departments" public safety and national security concerns," the brief said "The Departments support such an approach, which will benefit not just the flying public but will lend significant support to the vital mission of law enforcement onboard "at risk" flights and, in that respect, can be viewed as a critical factor in enhancing the safety of those flights."

A 1994 law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, allows law enforcement officials to keep pace with changes in communications technology as they monitor illegal and terrorist activities, according to the DOJ. The agencies want to be sure that any changes in airborne cell phone use and Internet access comply with the act so law enforcement officials can maintain tapping and interception capabilities.

"They want to have the ability to shut off the system if need be," said Chris Brown, counsel for the House Aviation Subcommittee.

Even if the FCC agrees to allow cell phone use on airplanes sometime next year, he said, the Federal Aviation Administration has said it has no plans to lift its ban on their use. The FAA has, however, said that it will consider such technology issues on a case-by-case basis. If both agencies were to okay the proposed change, a final decision on whether to allow cell phone use would then fall to the individual airlines, Brown said.

The DOJ in its comments suggested that it be given the authority to tap an airborne cell phone conversation within a 10-minute time frame if the phones are allowed to be used on planes.

"There is no room for such uncertainty in the air-to-ground context, where delays of minutes and seconds could make the difference between life and death for passengers and crew aloft and those on the ground below," the DOJ officials said. "There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis situations onboard an aircraft, and law enforcement needs to maximize its ability to respond to these potentially lethal situations."

The DOJ officials said they also want to prevent terrorists and other criminals from being able to use cell phones or onboard Internet access to coordinate a hijacking or attack by retaining the ability to intercept communications. The DOJ said it would be helpful if investigators could quickly locate and identify all cell phone users on a plane, interrupt communications if necessary, conference law enforcement officials into any communications and cut off all broadband-enabled communications devices.

The DOJ also warned the FCC that terrorists could use cell phones as remote-controlled improvised explosive devices in the air.

To fight that possibility, the DOJ wants onboard cell-phone users to be authenticated to the onboard network and register their locations on the aircraft before being able to use their devices. The DOJ also wants "strong network security controls required of communications equipment onboard aircraft" and wants communications companies to provide a way that will deny network access and connectivity to any device stored in an airplane"s cargo hold so a bomb can"t be activated.

The DOJ comments are expected to be presented in testimony at Thursday"s hearing by Laura H. Parsky, a deputy assistant attorney general who is one of four people who signed the DOJ brief. Parsky couldn"t be reached for comment.

The DOJ comments are among some 7,800 received so far by the FCC on the airborne cell-phone proposal. Comments will be accepted by the agency through Aug. 11.