The New York Times, February 15, 1997, pp. 32, 38.
By John Markoff
San Francisco, Feb. 14 -- An old quarrel about the F.B.I.'s plan to modernize its system for eavesdropping on telephone conversations has flared anew.
After a contentious meeting earlier this week with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, telephone companies and industry associations are arguing that the new system will be far more intrusive and expensive than the industry had first thought. They said it would give law-enforcement officials sweeping new power to monitor tens of thousands of conversations and data transmissions simultaneously in a metropolitan area.
They said, for example, that the bureau's plan would enable the law enforcement authorities in Los Angeles County to expand their surveillance capabilities a hundred-fold beyond their current capacity of 1,360 simultaneous wiretaps.
"This is kind of scary," said Tom Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, a trade group. "What does the F.B.I. know about our future that we don't?"
F.B.I. officials rejected the industry's interpretation of the capacity requirements, saying the numbers were inaccurate and far higher than what the bureau wants or needs.
And the F.B.I. said that the industry was wrong in saying that the bureau wanted to be able to monitor hundreds of transmissions simultaneously from every network switching center in a county or metropolitan area. Within the five boroughs of New York City, for instance, there are hundreds of such switching centers, which route calls and data communications from sender to receiver.
"We never planned to require the industry to meet capacity requirements on a switch-by-switch basis," James Kallstrom, head of the F.B.I. office in New York, said. "That would be crazy."
Mr. Kallstrom said that many telephone companies could meet the F.B.I. requirements by providing special remote monitoring equipment covering the network switches for an entire region.
In the case of Los Angeles County, for example, where past F.B.I. surveillance data indicate that a total of 1,360 simultaneous wiretaps might be needed, Mr. Kallstrom said that number would be the total capacity needed for the entire region -- not, as some industry officials had understood from this week's meetings, for each network switch in the county.
The F.B.I. asserts that because digital voice and data transmissions are much more difficult to monitor than old-fashioned analog telephone conversations, agents and detectives with court-authorized wiretap warrants need new kinds of network access from the phone companies.
The Digital Telephony Act of 1994 set the mandate for the new procedures, and the F.B.I. has since been trying to work out the details.
The dispute, industry executives contend, has come about because the F.B.I. has not detailed in writing what surveillance capacity it is seeking. Instead, they say, executives have had to draw conclusions from supporting data the F.B.I. has filed and from oral comments bureau officials have made in meetings.
Mr. Kallstrom said the industry was misinterpreting data about the plan, which the F.B.I. released on Jan. 14, adding that he was puzzled over how each side could reach such different conclusions. But industry executives blame the F.B.I. for not sufficiently stating its intentions.
"One of the problems with this is the F.B.I. hasn't committed themselves on paper," said James X. Dempsey, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based public interest organization. "Until the F.B.I. unambiguously states on the record what it intends, the statute has not been complied with."
In the face of the mounting debate, the Justice Department said on Thursday, which had been the deadline for public comments on the plan, that it would extend the comment period for 30 days. Several industry executives said they expected additional members of the telecommunications industry would weigh in.
The F.B.I.'s revised plan was released in response to criticisms of the original proposal early last year. But after a meeting last Tuesday with F.B.I. officials, communications industry executives came away with the impression that the bureau, much more than simply trying to transfer its current surveillance capabilities into the digital era, was seeking to greatly expand its wiretapping capacity.
Based on the latest F.B.I. plan, Mr. Wheeler said, the Cellular Telephone Industry Association calculated that the bureau's historical data  had shown that the highest number of simultaneous cellular phone taps ever conducted in the nation by local, state and Federal law-enforcement agencies was 6,070. But the F.B.I. is now proposing that the cellular industry give law-enforcement agencies the ability to monitor 103,190 calls simultaneously nationwide.
Privacy concerns notwithstanding, industry executives contend that such surveillance capacity would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and they complain that the F.B.I. is calling for communications companies or their customers to pay the bill. With telecommunications on the brink of a new round of competition in the cellular and local markets, industry officials fear such costs will stifle initiative.
"The numbers alone are astounding," said Al Gudari, a lawyer in Seattle, who represents AT&T Wireless Services Inc. "But when you add to that the F.B.I.'s notion that carriers and new entrants to markets must pay for it, the situation becomes even more amazing."
Mr. Kallstrom said the bureau was open to working with the industry.
"There are no tricks here," he said. "We are willing to work with industry to sort these things out."
1. Latest wiretap plan: http://jya.com/fbi011497.txt
2. First wiretap plan: http://jya.com/fbi051096.txt
3. Tables showing court ordered surveillance 1984-1994:
http://jya.com/nrcd1.jpg (1994 only)