Feds Fear Air Broadband Terror

By Kevin Poulsen

Federal law enforcement officials, fearful that terrorists will exploit emerging in-flight broadband services to remotely activate bombs or coordinate hijackings, are asking regulators for the power to begin eavesdropping on any passenger's internet use within 10 minutes of obtaining court authorization.

In joint comments filed with the FCC last Tuesday, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned that a terrorist could use on-board internet access to communicate with confederates on other planes, on the ground or in different sections of the same plane -- all from the comfort of an aisle seat.

"There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis situations on board an aircraft, and law enforcement needs to maximize its ability to respond to these potentially lethal situations," the filing reads.

The Justice Department hopes to do that with an FCC ruling that satellite-based in-flight broadband services are bound by the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, the federal law that required telephone companies to modify their networks to be wiretap-friendly for the FBI.

CALEA was originally passed to preserve the Bureau's ability to eavesdrop on telephone calls in the digital age. But last year the FBI and Justice Department persuaded the FCC to interpret the law so it would apply to internet traffic over cable modems and DSL lines. The FCC has already expressed the view that in-flight broadband would likely be covered as well.

The Justice Department is asking the commission to require that air-to-ground internet taps be equipped "forthwith, but in no circumstance more than 10 minutes" after the FBI requests them.

The filing comes as the FCC considers implementing a licensing scheme that would encourage more companies to enter the satellite-based in-flight broadband market. Currently, only Boeing is licensed to provide such services.

Boeing's Connexion system lets passengers plug in to a wired ethernet jack or connect wirelessly over 802.11b, and is available on select flights on a handful of international carriers, including Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Korean Air. No U.S. carrier has announced plans to offer the service.

In addition to seeking the rapid-tap technology, the Justice Department filing asks the FCC to require carriers to maintain fine-grained control over their airborne broadband links. This would include the ability to quickly and automatically identify every internet user by name and seat number, remotely cut off a passenger's internet access, cut off all passengers' access without affecting the flight crew's access, or redirect communications to and from the aircraft in the event of a crisis.

Officials also expressed concern that terrorists might use in-flight broadband to remotely trigger a bomb hidden on a plane. They asked the FCC to keep such services from being accessible from the cargo hull of an aircraft.

"The ability to turn on a broadband-enabled communications device located on board an aircraft ... presents the possibility that either a passenger or someone on the ground could reliably remotely activate a broadband-enabled communications device in flight and use that device as an RCIED (remote-controlled improvised explosive device)," the filing says.

Forrester Research analyst Brownlee Thomas supports the Justice Department's proposal, but admits it would raise the barrier of entry for companies wanting to enter the in-flight broadband market.

"It does favor the largest players in this space," says Thomas. "I would go so far as to suggest that I think it is the Justice Department's intention to ensure that the doors are not open too wide on this, for the requirement of national security ... that actually makes perfect sense."

Despite their safety concerns, federal agencies are generally bullish on airborne broadband, lauding its potential to enhance communications between the air and the ground during a crisis.

Copyright 2005, Lycos, Inc. and Wired Magazine. Lycos is a trademark of Carnegie Mellon University.

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