The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News March 3, 2006

FCC Requires “Tapping” of Students

In August of 2005, the Federal Communications Commission decided that a 1994 act regarding privacy in communications extended to college and university computer networks. This FCC ruling requires that all colleges and universities update their computer networks in order to open all system members’ internet action to federal scrutiny by June 2007.

Congress originally passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act in order to require telecommunication systems to assist the federal government with surveying identified threats to national security.

“Most people think it was never intended to apply to higher education,” said John Bucher, Oberlin College’s chief technology officer.

“As telephone systems and communications have changed, various law enforcement agencies can’t really do a wire tap anymore, or it’s a lot more difficult,” said Bucher. “Furthermore, a lot of communication takes place on the internet.”

“What we who work in education IT were concerned about was that making networks ‘wire-tappable’ was going to mean purchasing a lot of new equipment,” Bucher continued. “We were going to have to have new routers, new hubs and other electronic equipment.”

Oberlin’s network, Bucher explained, utilizes hundreds of electronic “hubs” to tie the computers together. All new equipment comes out of the IT budget.

“The fear was that we would have to replace all of that,” he said. “And that would be really expensive.”

The FCC’s decision was met with strong aversion from much of the educational community. The American Council on Education together with eight more education organizations sued the FCC in Oct. 2005. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s March 1 issue, some colleges estimated that it would take between $15 and $20 million to completely rebuild their networks.

On Wednesday this week the FCC responded with a clarification of its requirements, to Bucher’s and others’ relief.

“The good news this week is that all the FCC cares about is that we change the piece of equipment that connects Oberlin out to the rest of the internet,” said Bucher. “We just have to replace the gateway router. They’re not requiring us to have the capability to tap into communications within the network.

“There’s a whole other side of this which is the privacy issue,” said Bucher. “But we weren’t even looking at the legality of it — we were just worried how we were going to pull it off. Now it looks like the cost will be trivial: a couple of thousands of dollars as opposed to tens of thousands.”

Harvey Gittler, a columnist for the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, focused on the issue of privacy when he wrote about the FCC ruling in a Feb. 20 article. In the article, he criticized the act for invading privacy and issuing an unfunded mandate.

“I wrote the column to alert people,” Gittler told the Review. “It will be a nationwide scandal when it’s better known.”

“It seems stupid,” Gittler continued. “The FBI now has 350,000 names on their list of potential whatever-we-are. We could wipe out unemployment just with the army that they’ll need to follow up on every college kid in the country.”

And although the FCC’s clarification is a huge relief to many, there are still some unanswered questions about the mandate and how its required surveillance would work.

“We still don’t know exactly what kind [of router] we’ll need in order to comply,” said Bucher. “And the good news of [March 1] doesn’t answer the question of communication protocol.”

In other words, what happens when the FBI calls CIT at 3 a.m. requesting that a student be wire-tapped?

“We’re concerned that we’re going to have to have someone with technical expertise 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Bucher. “But that pales to the concerns we had about the potential costs of the thing.”


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