To improve the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ability to monitor national security threats, the Federal Communications Commission recently ordered that Internet networks be re-engineered by 2007. While the federal government claims that new stipulations are necessary to allow law enforcement to more easily perform search and seizure of Internet communications, universities, companies and city governments will feel the biggest budgetary blow as their pocketbooks are hit by this unfunded mandate – a mandate promising to do little to improve security.

Jess Cox

In 1994, the federal government mandated that universities and other Internet providers update their networks to bring them into compliance with technological specifications that make it easier to conduct wiretaps and obtain information communicated via e-mail, Internet phones or other online communication devices. Now, the federal government has issued new standards, forcing the overhaul of communications networks to keep ahead of Internet technology advances. Objection to this announcement has not focused on civil liberties issues; law enforcement will still be required to obtain a warrant before conducting a wiretap. The more worrisome problem is that this federal legislation will burden local governments and entities to make changes within a limited timeframe and without the resources to accommodate the changes.

Because the FBI will still be required to obtain a search warrant, the reconfiguration of networks will do little to improve security. The FBI rarely taps Internet communications. The New York Times reported, “In 2003, only 12 of the 1,442 state and federal wiretap orders were issued for computer communications.” Furthermore, the same story reports that the 12 taps the FBI carried out were successful using current technology. There is no need for an expensive infrastructure overhaul. If the federal government insists on improvements to current networks, it must foot the bill and provide adequate time for implementing changes.

The government must realize that the current deadline is unreasonable. Universities, corporations and local governments must overhaul their networks by 2007, leaving little time to devise an implementation strategy. Hiring personnel, purchasing equipment and installing the new systems will require a significant investment of resources. If the timeframe for complying with these standards was further off, gradual change to current networks would ease the intense burden the current deadline imposes. Indeed, if the government merely required new systems to meet these standards, there is a good chance that Internet infrastructure would eventually meet these new standards as Internet providers update their systems and phase out the outdated technology.

However, if the government insists these changes should happen soon, it should be providing funds for institutions to comply with the new requirement. University institutions are expected to shell out more than $7 billion in order to meet the new requirement, which would translate into an annual tuition increase of around $450 for each student enrolled at a university, according to The New York Times. At a time of rising tuition costs and tightening belts, universities and their students should not have to bear the burden of an unnecessary federal government policy.

If enacted as an unfunded mandate, this change would embolden the FBI to unexpectedly alter its requirements at anytime without consideration of the financial costs involved. If the government does not need to assume any responsibility for the financial cost of these changes, it will be likely to overlook the gratuitous nature of unnecessary network improvements.


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