Lawful Intercept(ion) Primer Part 2 — Why?

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This entry is part of a wonderful series, Intercept»

As promised, in this entry, I  discuss why Lawful Interception is needed (or not) and some of my thoughts on the subject.


OK, so let’s try and tackle the question of why Lawful Interception is needed.   Keeping in mind that I am a Privacy advocate, this is not an easy question for me to answer.   I believe that generally conversations someone has should be sacrosanct.  That being said,  I believe that only in three cases Lawful Intercept is warranted:

1) Risk for Life:  Let’s suppose that a person on the phone is being attacked, or having a medical emergency, and as such emergency services need the ability to listen in on a conversation to prevent further medical hurt or provide emergency services.

2) Terrorist / Criminal investigation – this one is very contentious.  I, however, believe that an important tool in the prevention of attacks and/or crimes is the ability to gather intelligence about pending actions and plans of malicious nature.

3) The "Statistical" exemption – Telecommunication companies may need, from time to time, rarely, and without a specific individual being targeted, measure quality of services – such as Voice over IP (VoIP) by "listening in" on a small part of a conversation.   I do not like this particular exemption, but I know of times in which it is needed and irreplaceable.

In the US, the legislature generally agrees with my beliefs and codified the law, in general, to read as follows:

(2)(a)(i) It shall not be unlawful under this chapter for an operator of a switchboard, or an officer, employee, or agent of a provider of wire or electronic communication service, whose facilities are used in the transmission of a wire or electronic communication, to intercept, disclose, or use that communication in the normal course of his employment while engaged in any activity which is a necessary incident to the rendition of his service or to the protection of the rights or property of the provider of that service, except that a provider of wire communication service to the public shall not utilize service observing or random monitoring except for mechanical or service quality control checks.


(ii) Notwithstanding any other law, providers of wire or electronic communication service, their officers, employees, and agents, landlords, custodians, or other persons, are authorized to provide information, facilities, or technical assistance to persons authorized by law to intercept wire, oral, or electronic communications or to conduct electronic surveillance, as defined in section 101 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, if such provider, its officers, employees, or agents, landlord, custodian, or other specified person, has been provided with—

(A) a court order directing such assistance signed by the authorizing judge, or
(B) a certification in writing by a person specified in section 2518 (7) of this title or the Attorney General of the United States that no warrant or court order is required by law, that all statutory requirements have been met, and that the specified assistance is required,

– US Code Title 18, Section 2511



In the next blog in this series, I will discuss the "How" of Lawful Intercept.  How it is accomplished, where, and give some examples of its utility.



Lawful Intercept(ion) Primer Part I – Introduction

This entry is part of a wonderful series, Intercept»

Many readers have asked me to clarify what Lawful Interception is, why it is needed (or not), how it is implemented, and what are my thoughts on the subject. This post series will be a stream of thoughts, facts, and figures about Lawful Interception and any/all discussion is welcome.


To start with, the term Lawful Interception refers to the recording, analysing, or processing of communications.  While historically referring to Telephone calls, especially calls over the Publicly Switched Telephone Network, and thus called "wiretapping", the term today includes communications in any form, including:

  • Telephone calls
  • Cellular telephone calls
  • Internet communication
  • Wi-fi
  • GPS signals
  • and generally any other form of communication (electronic or not).


As in most developed countries, interception of communications in the USA is generally illegal.  It is generally illegal for someone to listen-in on your phone calls, read your email, and open your regular mail.  It is also generally illegal for someone to run network analyzers on your access point or to trace your connections.

Due to the ever-growing need of most States to have more Intelligence, an ever-changing compromise was worked up and eventually codified into Law.  Perhaps the best example of a listening system in the world is the US National Security Agency (NSA), an agency that for years did not "officially" exist, and that was vilified in many movies, stories, books and rumors.

While originally constructed to listen-in on foreign military communications, it is generally presumed that the NSA does listen-in on domestic communication, especially when it does so under permission granted to it by US Law.  This article does not intend to talk much about the NSA, focusing instead on law-enforcement agencies.

In general, in the United States and most western countries, Lawful Interception requires a court order signed by a judge. However, it is important to note that one major exception to this rule is the the allowance to any network services provider to do the needed LI in order to protect their own networks.

In the next blogs in this series, I will discuss why Lawful Interception is needed (or not), how it is implemented, and some of my thoughts on the subject.