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Can VoIP Calls be Wiretapped?

Updated on July 10, 2014
Wiretapping VoIP Calls
Wiretapping VoIP Calls

Wiretapping and the NSA

Wiretapping of phone calls has a long history in the United States with law enforcement agencies making use of the technology to record phone conversations by criminals in order to secure convictions. However, the technology was also misused in some instances leading to the creation of wiretapping laws which specified conditions under which law enforcement could utilize it. These laws are fairly strict and enforcement agencies need a court order before tapping any phone line.

With the recent revelations regarding the NSA and its surveillance programs, both business organizations and private individuals have become concerned that VoIP calls could also be secretly recorded and accessed by officials. Tapping VoIP calls however is more complicated than normal phone calls for legal and technological reasons. For one thing, VoIP is classified under information services and providers are not required to provide “lawful intercept” for government agencies, unlike telephone carriers.

How Easy is it?

At present, it is easy for agencies to search through email or text messages without court approval when compared to phone calls. As VoIP becomes more popular, it is likely that the government will try to expand the scope of existing wiretapping laws to cover it as well. Some experts are of the view that bringing VoIP into the purview of wiretapping laws will actually be better for citizens since a strict judicial process will then be required even though privacy advocates argue strenuously against any such move.

The other obstacles to intercept business VoIP users are technological. VoIP has the advantage that it is not tied to a physical location such as cellular towers or wires, making it difficult for police to track users. Additionally, users are increasingly accessing VoIP services from mobile devices such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops. In the case of business organizations, VoIP calls are usually encrypted and it can be expensive and time-consuming for law enforcement to break the encryption without help from the service provider.

The Legal Environment

Because VoIP providers are not obligated to provide lawful intercepts for enforcement agencies, there have not been many incentives for the development of such methods so far. Still, at least 2 companies have filed/obtained patents for “lawful intercept of VoIP communication”. While it is not clear if the technology has been made available to VoIP providers as yet, the FBI and police departments are not likely to lose such a golden opportunity. In spite of this technological advancement, until the laws are changed, VoIP is still the most secure form of voice communication available today.


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