A new regulation may soon give the government the ability to monitor user communication on the Bowdoin network without the College even knowing about it?and requires the College to pick up the several-hundred-thousand dollar tab for the system upgrades needed to make it possible.
Several groups have already mobilized to fight the new rule.
In a regulation issued earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reinterpreted a 1994 wiretapping law known as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to encompass digital communication facilitated by broadband service providers like Bowdoin and other colleges.
Originally, CALEA forced telephone-service providers to re-engineer their systems to allow the government to remotely wiretap traditional telephone lines. The new interpretation expands this requirement beyond conventional telephony to other forms of digital communication such as email, video conferencing, and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). VoIP utilizes an internet connection to place telephone calls.
Civil rights organizations and higher education advocacy groups are fighting the regulation in court, claiming the rule is both unnecessary and an invasion of privacy.
Bowdoin Chief Information Officer Mitch Davis told the Orient that he believed that those fighting the rule would be at least partially successful since data monitoring was not meant to be a part of CALEA.
The new FCC regulation claims that it "will enhance public safety and ensure that the surveillance needs of law enforcement agencies continue to be met as Internet-based communications technologies proliferate."
Under the old system, if the government obtained a proper subpoena it would have to work with Information Technology (IT) at Bowdoin in order to set up surveillance. The new rule would allow the government to monitor communication without Bowdoin's cooperation.
"They want to do it and not inform anyone that they are doing it," Davis said. "Before they'd have to come in and ask me: 'We need access to this data traffic.' And we could provide it for them."
Davis expressed nervousness that the rule would mean less privacy for computer users.
"They want unlimited access without oversight," he said.
The American Council on Education (ACE), an organization of which Bowdoin is a member, appealed the decision last week to the federal appeals court in the District of Columbia. The ACE, which describes itself as the "unifying voice of higher education," estimates that the new regulation will cost colleges and universities $7 billion to comply.
ACE's vice president and general counsel Sheldon E. Steinbach argued that the current system is adequate and the new regulations are unnecessary.
"In filing suit, we hope to convince the FCC that colleges and universities can provide the same access through alternative approaches without the need to incur the $7 billion expense of revamping our computer network systems," Steinbach said in a press release. "When you evaluate efficiency versus the incredible cost of compliance, we just don't think it makes a lot of sense."
While he did not expect that the College would get actively involved in the legal fight, Davis said he supports the efforts to appeal the new regulation.
Speaking with The New York Times, an ACE official estimated an approximate cost of $450 per student to make the necessary upgrades. If this number is correct, such an upgrade at Bowdoin could cost in the vicinity of $750,000.
While expressing uncertainty as to what the final price tag might be for Bowdoin, Davis speculated it would cost between $200,000 and $400,000, but said it could be higher if the data provisions in the rule were upheld by the courts. According to Davis, the annual budget of IT is approximately $2 million.
Davis said that in his time at Bowdoin the government has only once asked for access to network data. He said, however, that the request was moot since the student user in question had already left the College. He would not elaborate on the details of the case other than to say that it involved "illegal content that was being passed around."
The rule goes into effect on November 18. If it is upheld by the courts, institutions will have 18 months to comply.