URBANA – The University of Illinois would have to spend $13 million on new equipment for its computer network to comply with a recent government order extending a wiretap law to e-mail and online communications.
And it would have to replace some brand-new equipment being installed as part of a $20 million, five-year computer network upgrade.
According to the American Council on Education, universities nationwide would have to spend an estimated $7 billion to upgrade their networks by July 2007.
"Our students need lots of things, and this $13 million takes away from cool technology in the classrooms and bigger e-mail systems," said Peter Siegel, chief information officer for the UI.
The Federal Communications Commission issued an order that all Internet service providers, including universities, libraries and commercial providers, allow remote monitoring of electronic communications by law enforcement agencies. The order is an extension to computer networks of the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which required telephone companies to redesign their systems to provide remote access.
The FCC issued the order at the request of the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, to enable law enforcement to conduct court-ordered wiretaps as technology changed.
"Responding to the needs of law enforcement is of paramount importance," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a press release. But he also said there needs to be a balance between fostering competitive broadband services and innovation and meeting the needs of law enforcement.
Siegel said the government wants to track communications of an individual, such as e-mail or instant messaging, no matter where the person is or what computer he is using, as opposed to monitoring a particular phone or computer. Siegel said some of the technology to allow law enforcement to track online communications remotely has yet to be designed.
To comply, the UI would have to replace 2,100 switches and routers in its computer network. But Siegel said a more cost-effective option would be to install equipment to track communications on the network's "backbone," which could monitor information flowing out of a building or off-campus.
That would cost $1 million, and the UI could install other special equipment as needed to monitor communications within a particular building, Siegel said.
"It's not trivial, but it's a lot cheaper than $13 million," he said.
"It isn't likely they are going to need to be watching 150 buildings on the Urbana campus every day," he added. "To have every campus be engineered just in case seems an awful lot of investment."
In its order, the FCC acknowledges that university networks might be private networks not subject to the order, but it stated that where the university network connects to the public, allowing information onto the Internet, it must be able to accommodate wiretaps.
Siegel, who is part of a national computer security task force, said the UI already works with law enforcement to comply with subpoenas to monitor communications. He said such cases usually involve an outside attack on the computer system rather than an individual on campus suspected of wrongdoing.
He said the UI wants to work with the government to help solve problems of computer security. He said universities are not objecting to the law, but rather the interpretation that says universities are covered in a specific way.
The FCC could still exempt education networks from the order. The order stated it reached no conclusion on that issue. The FCC is continuing to look at it, as well as standards for compliance and enforcement, and it is accepting comments on those issues until Nov. 14.
Siegel said the UI is working with other universities to look at the order and talk with FCC officials about how to provide what is needed in a cost-effective way.
"We're trying to be leaders in getting out the word on this and working with various organizations," he said. "Our view is, 'Let's not complain. Let's identify the best way to do this so we can use the money for more meritorious things.'"
The American Council on Education and a coalition of public interest and business groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, have both filed appeals of the FCC order.