Colleges have been ever vigilant in recent years to make their computer networks secure from outside hackers.
As a result, giving outside entities -- like federal law enforcement officials -- the ability to enter networks would be extremely complicated and require a huge expenditure on rewiring equipment throughout campuses. And that is what the Federal Communications Commission is ordering colleges and other entities to do.
The rules issued by the FCC have infuriated college officials, who note that higher education would be spending billions of dollars to make it easier for wiretaps to be installed when there is no evidence that the government seeks wiretaps of college networks.
FCC officials were not available for comment, but in announcing the rules said that they would "enhance public safety and ensure that the surveillance needs of law enforcement agencies continue to be met as Internet-based communications technologies proliferate."
Currently, if a federal law enforcement agency obtained a subpoena to tap a computer network on campus, it would have to present that subpoena to the college, which would then provide access for the tap to be installed. The changes that the FCC has ordered colleges to make would allow federal law enforcement officials to install the wiretaps remotely, although subpoenas would still be required.
Mark Luker, vice president of Educause, said that the process of making the technical changes would be "extremely cumbersome" and involves "installing different kinds of routers and switches throughout your system."
The American Council on Education, based on analyses done on a number of campuses, estimates that making these changes would cost colleges approximately $450 per student, or a total of $7 billion.
College groups that are objecting to the new rules say that they are particularly upset because there is no history of federal authorities having difficulty placing wiretaps in college networks because there is no history of them seeking to do so. "This is an awful lot of money for very little gain," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for public and government affairs at ACE.
Hartle said that the Association of Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education has surveyed its 700 members anonymously, and found that not a single one had a wiretap in place. Based on court records, of the hundreds of wiretaps in place by law enforcement agencies in 2003, only a dozen involved computer networks (and that dozen would cover not just those at colleges, but those anyplace in the United States).
"We think it's safe to say that there are only a handful at colleges, if there are any," Hartle said.
ACE plans to formally file an appeal of the rules today, and Hartle said that he was hopeful that the FCC and the Justice Department would be receptive, but he noted that colleges have been raising these issues for months -- prior to the release of the final regulations -- without any apparent impact. Asked if ACE might sue the government to block the regulations, Hartle said that "we don't want to do that and hope we can work this out."
Educause has also been talking to federal authorities about an alternative plan in which only modest changes would be made in networks. Educause and ACE are willing to support another part of the rules, a requirement that each college designate an official to be available, 24/7, to help install a wiretap if a subpoena is issued.
Luker said that if colleges made that change, wiretaps could be installed speedily if they were ever needed.
Civil liberties groups have also been concerned about the regulation, but Hartle and Luker said that they were not raising civil liberties questions about the rule because the subpoena requirement is unchanged, so law enforcement officials would face the same burden of demonstrating a need for the wiretap as they face now.
Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that he agreed that the legal requirements for obtaining a subpoena were unchanged. "So in that sense, you can't say that the requirement is in and of itself a civil liberties issue."
However, he added, "whenever you are talking about opening doors inside networks, you have to worry about whether it opens the door to broader discretion for the FBI to conduct surveillance. The potential for abuse is always there."