Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Friday, January 13, 2006

BPL: Consumer Boon or Threat to Security and Privacy?

BPL stands for "bandwidth over power line". In the simplest terms, it refers to providing high-speed Internet access over power lines in the same way access is now provided via DSL or cable. According to the map provided by the United Power Line Council, BPL is being tested by Avista in eastern Washington and by Idaho Power in southern Idaho.

A reasonably good and detailed explanation of how BPL works is provided here. The intent of BPL's promoters is to compete with companies providing DSL and cable internet access. Their theory is that competition should drive down the cost of consumer's internet access.

To date the most notable objections to BPL have been raised by the amateur radio community, ham radio operators. The American Radio Relay League, an amateur radio membership organization, has summarized the amateur radio community's objections here.

But lurking beneath the noise level of unwanted radio interference is the more insidious threat to security and privacy that BPL facilitates. BPL, when approved for consumer use, will make it easier for homes, businesses, and government agencies to be targeted for both lawful and unlawful electronic surveillance.

In October 1994, Congress took action to protect public safety and ensure national security by enacting the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (CALEA), Pub. L. No. 103-414, 108 Stat. 4279. The law further defines the existing statutory obligation of telecommunications carriers to assist law enforcement in executing electronic surveillance pursuant to court order or other lawful authorization.

The objective of CALEA implementation is to preserve law enforcement's ability to conduct lawfully-authorized electronic surveillance while preserving public safety, the public's right to privacy, and the telecommunications industry's competitiveness.

In March 2004 the US Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Administration filed a request to the Federal Communications Commission to declare that broadband Internet services and VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) services are covered by CALEA (the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act). That request included BPL. The FCC issued "First Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, FCC 05-153." This Order is the first critical step to apply CALEA obligations to new technologies and services that are increasingly relied upon by the American public to meet their communications needs.

While most of us understand the government may be able to monitor our Internet communications with a properly issued court order, we need to also understand that the BPL technology will facilitate unlawful interceptions as well. Here's how:

Keep in mind that BPL turns every outlet in your house or business into an Internet access point. Plug a BPL modem into that outlet, connect a device with a unique IP address to the modem, and voila! Access to the Internet. No problem, right? Right. As long as you know that connection has been made and you have complete control over the device.

But suppose "someone" wants to bug one or every room in your house or business with audio, video, or both. What if the BPL modem, a microphone with associated processing circuitry, and a small video camera with associated processing circuitry could be built into a functional duplex outlet housing. Then, during a covert entry, the technician replaces existing duplex outlets with modified outlets that appear (from the front) to be identical. The beauty of this is that each specially constructed audio/video capable outlet has its own unique IP address, so outlets can be accessed independently or collectively. So, if you have a two room office with four duplex outlets in each wall, technicians can install eight audio/video devices, each with its own unique IP address. From where would they monitor your office's audio and video? Anywhere in the world with Internet access.

In the preceding example BPL facilitates command and control over the devices, and it enables the monitoring station to be in a nearby van, in the house next door, or in a government facility half way around the world.

BPL is potentially useful, but its potential impact on individual privacy as well as on business and government security must also be seriously considered.


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