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U.S. UNIVERSITIES are reeling from the looming $7 billion cost of providing federal law enforcement with instant investigative access to the computer networks honeycombing every up-to-date campus.
Institutions of higher education and other providers of Internet connections, such as libraries and airports, are under orders to upgrade their systems by the spring of 2007 -- so that federal cops can more readily tap e-mail and other online communication at the flick of a switch, from remote locations.
The Federal Communications Commission has ordered this costly revamping of campus computer facilities as a technological updating of a 1994 wiretap law (the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act). The freshly updated rule, however, is a spectacular example of the "unfunded mandate" -- a government requirement for which the government does not pay.
The affected institutions are expected to bear the huge cost -- many millions of dollars in some cases. They must buy expensive new switches and routers, have them installed to exacting standards and, if necessary, redesign their computer networks linking dozens of buildings -- all to enable the feds to intercept incriminating communications without leaving their desks.
One estimate of the bill for the computer work translates into a $450 tuition increase for students whose tight budgets cannot afford this generosity to a well-funded FBI.
Unsurprisingly, the universities acting through the American Council on Education have filed a legal challenge to the FCC order. They hope to convince Washington that less expensive alternative approaches can satisfy the law-enforcement (and war-on-terrorism) need to catch up with the technological revolution in communications, including the explosive growth of e-mail and Internet-based telephone service.
The universities, accustomed to complying quietly with court orders in helping authorities carry out surveillance of particular on-campus targets, are not at this point fighting the new order on civil-rights or privacy grounds. But the increasing sophistication of Internet surveillance should be an international concern among those wary of potential abuses, both here and in less democratic parts of the world.
Beijing is one of the hotbeds of official activity to crack down on forbidden communications, by means of Internet surveillance and more recent scrutiny of mobile-phone messaging. Targets are believed to include "sensitive" political topics as well as pornography.
The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders denounced a Vietnamese directive for online surveillance, aimed at what Hanoi calls "reactionary and hostile forces."
So the FCC plan for easy access by federal enforcement agencies to the flow of online chatter through campus networks will be greeted with understandable suspicion by both students and faculty. There could be a wave of protests against Big Brother, especially if the enormous cost of upgrading necessitates higher tuition.
The government should back off from this unreasonable, unfunded mandate.