with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Know Before You Go: WIFI in Flight Under Attack by FBI


One of the hottest tickets in the travel business is the new WIFI service onboard international airlines that is growing so fast, the airlines can’t get the technology onboard fast enough to keep up with their own interest and enthusiasm. How do I know? My husband, Brent, works as a DER and structural engineer for the company contracted with Boeing Connexion to manufacturer and install the WIFI Internet kits on commercial airplanes.

The thrill of surfing the net while you fly is very excited, though currently limited to airlines outside of the US because American airline companies aren’t ready to hand over the money and time it takes to add the Internet access. European, Middle East, and Asian airlines can’t get these units installed fast enough.

Yet, there is a threat on the horizon that you, the airline traveler, needs to know about. News is spreading from sources like Wired News and the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the FCC is issuing rules that will allow the FBI to “Dictate Wiretap-Friendly Design for Internet Services”. The issue is two-fold.

First, the FBI wants “sweeping and sophisticated internet wiretapping capability into emerging in-flight broadband services”. The reports say that the FBI has requested the right and ability to force satellite-based broadband service providers to equip their airline WIFI inflight networks with a “rapid-wiretapping capability”. Basically, it would let the government and it’s agents monitor passenger’s Internet access, communications, and traffic.

The FBI says they will get a court order first, but the ability to “monitor” the inflight Internet communications would need to go into effect within 10 minutes of the court order being issued. Therefore, airlines must make the technology “built-in” so the FBI can immediately access the information.

The FBI, Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security jointly asked the FCC for the enhanced surveillance powers last month, citing fears that terrorists could use on-board internet access to communicate with confederates on other planes, on the ground or in different sections on the same plane during an attack.

The agencies also asked that carriers be required to maintain fine-grained control over their airborne broadband links. This would include the ability to cut off a passenger’s internet access quickly, deny passengers’ access without affecting the flight crew’s connection, or redirect communications to and from the aircraft in the event of a crisis.
Wired News

There have been many civil liberties groups and organizations filing protests against the FCC approval of the plan, but it seems the FBI and government will probably get their way. The plan would also force providers for airlines WIFI services to “keep a log of every internet connection each passenger makes from the air, tied to name and seat number. The log – which would not include the contents of the communications – would have to be maintained for 24 hours after the flight, in case law enforcement wants to review it.”

Second, this request to monitor airline Internet traffic is not limited to the Internet. The goverment wants more. They want all broadband Internet providers and VoIP providers to open up a back door.

Today [Aug 5, 2005], the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a release announcing its new rule expanding the reach of the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). The ruling is a reinterpretation of the scope of CALEA and will force Internet broadband providers and certain Voice-over-IP (VoIP) providers to build backdoors into their networks that make it easier for law enforcement to wiretap them. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has argued against this expansion of CALEA in several rounds of comments to the FCC on its proposed rule.

CALEA, a law passed in the early 1990s, mandated that all telephone providers build tappability into their networks, but expressly ruled out information services like broadband. Under the new ruling from the FCC, this tappability now extends to Internet broadband providers as well.

Practically, what this means is that the government will be asking broadband providers – as well as companies that manufacture devices used for broadband communications – to build insecure backdoors into their networks, imperiling the privacy and security of citizens on the Internet. It also hobbles technical innovation by forcing companies involved in broadband to redesign their products to meet government requirements.

…At the same time, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is asking airlines to build similar backdoors into the phone and data networks on airplanes. EFF and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) submitted joint comments to the FCC arguing against the DOJ’s unprecedented and sweeping new technology design mandates and anticipatory wiretapping system.
Electronic Frontier Foundation


The 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, a federal law that required telephone companies to modify their networks to be more wiretap-friendly, combined with the new Homeland Security and Patriot Act, seems to be a solid basis for the FBI’s request.

In another twist, Government agencies concerned about efforts allowing use of mobile phones on airplanes is a report on Aviation Law News that says many airlines, including Qualcomm and Verizon, have tested the use of cell phones on airplanes and find no interference with airplane avionics. While government and some airlines protest this, then why, the article asks, are wireless broadband Internet services being permitted on airlines now?

Representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security told a House of Representatives subcommittee that allowing wireless systems could allow better coordination efforts among terrorists with cohorts on the ground, as well as being used by terrorists to remotely set off bombs in airplanes.

The DOJ, despite their safety concerns, did not recommend that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission halt its current inquiry into mobile phone use on airplanes. The agency did recommend several safety mechanisms, however, including the ability to wiretap mobile calls by suspicious passengers and shut off all mobile phone calls at once. An official from the Federal Aviation Administration also told the House Committee on Transportation’s Subcommittee on Aviation that the agency remained concerned about mobile phones interfering with aircraft navigation and other electronic systems.

While the threat of terrorism is a driving force behind so many of these laws and infringements on personal freedom, and these acts may or may not be justified, we thought you, the traveler, should “know before you go”.

One Comment

  • Posted August 24, 2005 at 23:51 | Permalink

    Hi Lorelle,

    I was excited to see “Camera On the Road” among the usual links that findory.com serves me, and boy I have just been using findory for a day – and there this article was, bang on the front page of findory.com – was a pleasant surprise.

    As for what you say in the article and FCC – nothing surprises me these days – governments are no longer benevolent, i guess.

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