The high price of online eavesdropping

Ethernet cables

KAI RYSSDAL: It's almost a given in this day and age you've got to be careful what you do online. Whether it's nasty e-mails about a colleague or sending your credit card number to a hacker. That state of affairs makes it all the more interesting that today's the deadline for some Internet companies to make sure the goverment can tap into their systems. Specifically, companies that provide DSL or cable Internet access, or VOIP.

The idea is to protect Americans from crimes being hatched on the Web. Regular phone companies have had to let the feds in since 1994. But Ashley Milne-Tyte reports once you start getting the Internet involved, compliance becomes more complicated. And more expensive.


ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: Regular person-to-person phone lines have been relatively easy to tap. But, says telecom consultant Scott Cleland . . .
SCOTT CLELAND: In the Internet age you have voice over IP or VOIP, where people's conversations are broken up into bits and sent out over the Internet and reassembled. And so it makes it a little more challenging technologically to be able to tap and listen into those kinds of calls.

The same goes for e-mails. Privacy advocates have spoken out against the extra layer of surveillance, but Cleland says companies accept it, some more willingly than others.

CLELAND: As a corporate matter, you're not seeing companies say "No, we don't want to cooperate with the United States government to protect the U.S. citizens."

Still, he says, meeting the government's compliance standards is a hassle. Daniel Berninger with Tier 1 Research says there's a lack of clarity, which could cause companies to get in legal trouble down the line. And then . . .

DANIEL BERNINGER: What's absolutely missing right now is sort of this efficacy. You know, is this useful based on what we're spending?

And he says companies are spending plenty to obey the new law.

BERNINGER: Let's say you really wanted to comply. You could probably spend 20 percent to 30 percent of your end-user revenue trying to comply.

Overall he says companies will spend billions. Both men agree that one thing's for certain, though: the new compliance costs will soon be passed on to consumers.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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