I read with growing concern an article from CNet about a proposal by the FBI to create a system that would facilitate eavesdropping on telephone conversations made over VoIP networks. The request seems innocuous enough, they already have the right to tap your phone, the internet is being used to make phone calls, so why not give them the same rights over that system.
Personally, I can think of two reasons: first, it favors big business and expensive internet access; second, it is only effective against stupid criminals and naïve consumers.
The big business favoritism comes from the administrative and technical overhead of the system. Smaller ISPs (such as those that provide inexpensive local access for communities) are already fighting a tough battle against nationwide providers and local telephone companies. The addition of special packet diverting requirements (which would be necessary to capture the data from all VoIP packets and resend them to the law enforcement agencies) would add administrative overhead (such as the people necessary to verify the requests from the FBI) and possibly additional capital costs to the network.
The second point is more disturbing, though. Any criminal worth their salt (and most business people and paranoids) are likely to be running their communication over secured VPN technologies. These technologies mask the nature of the traffic (thus making it impossible for the FBI or ISP to even detect that it is VoIP) and provide encryption (requiring the FBI to go through the costly and time consuming task of breaking the encryption). So, that leaves those of us who may be making legitimate telephone calls over VoIP networks to each other or to the PSTN (public switched telephone network).
So, what about calls made by criminals using VoIP to other criminals who are not on VoIP (such as cellular phones or other PSTN-only phones). This is the FBI's complaint, that the VoIP networks are somehow immune from normal wiretapping because they cannot reasonably capture information from calls going over the public network in the clear. However, I'm not really sure there is much benefit to this plan, either, because the existing PSTN can be used to watch not only outgoing but incoming calls and set wiretap systems in motion.
It may not be as easy a solution as putting tapping equipment in every ISP, but it might serve us better as a country to have a bit more security in our personal communications.