Feds Want to Tap In-Flight Internet Communications

The federal government is moving forward with a proposal to tap — and track — in-flight Internet communications, experts tell TechNewsWorld.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, teaming with the Department of Homeland Security, is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency, to change the rules so that law enforcement can more easily access satellite-based Internet communications on aircraft.

Controlling Communications

The feds seek the “full ability to control all communications” on the aircraft, according to James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil rights group, based in Washington D.C.

The petition by the federal government may put a damper on enthusiasm for in-flight Internet service, an emerging niche.

Online WiFi service was first tested in 2003 by Boeing aboard a Lufthansa flight from Germany, and United Airlines was the first American carrier to move forward with in-flight WiFi.

On board, the planes are equipped with wireless routers, making them WiFi hotspots, like a coffee house or a copy shop on the ground. These wireless networks are then linked to an Internet Service Provider (ISP), or a Virtual Private Network (VPN) via a satellite connection.

Efficient Travel Time

Using Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) technology, the airlines can deliver to passengers news, weather, stock market reports, and destination city information, via an onboard portal. To pay for the service, customers can use their frequent flier miles, or pay a service fee.

“The time spent onboard will now become more efficient and valuable for our customers, since they will be able to work online during flights,” said Terje Christoffersen, group vice president, marketing, products and service, at TeliaSonera AB, a provider of telecom services in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

As the first airline to use the equipment, Lufthansa engineers in Hamburg, Germany had to secure approval from the European Joint Aviation Authority (JAA) for the project, while American carriers also had to seek regulatory approval in the United States.

Intercept, Block, Reroute

Federal law enforcement now wants to be able to intercept, block, or reroute e-mail to and from any airplane. There will be due process, however, as the feds are saying that they will only be able to read in-flight e-mail or instant messages after receiving a court order.

According to the petition recently filed with the FCC, which regulates communications in the U.S., in-flight Internet Service Providers, like Boeing’s Connexion project, would have to give the government access to a passenger’s e-mail within 10 minutes of receiving a court order.

New rules are being requested, moreover, to be able to identify passengers not just by the Internet Protocol address, but by their seat number, the petition said. The concern is that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists — like those who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and, earlier this month, the London tube — could use the Internet to plot an aircraft takeover, in-flight.

Serious Concerns

Another concern that seems to be straight out of a sci-fi movie is that terrorists could detonate explosives placed upon aircraft using the in-flight Internet systems.

Makers of in-flight technologies, interestingly, have been advertising the fact that their products can be used to “monitor passenger behavior” too. One firm, Innovative Concepts , said its IDM V304 modem is used to transmit data in harsh environments, and that it “understands that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering placing web cams throughout the passenger cabin area to monitor behavior in-flight.”

Passengers, however, may be alarmed to learn such potential uses for the technology are on the table at all. Applications like these may make your head “snap” with surprise, said Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Technewsworld Channels