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The Justice Department has proposed measures to forestall invasion of privacy fears connected with court-ordered surveillance over digital telephones.

Law enforcement has been stymied by the difficulty in obtaining court-ordered surveillance over digital telephone lines.Jim Kallstrom, chief, FBI engineering section, acknowledged Friday that the FBI has not been able to pursue some court-ordered conversations from the 10 percent of U.S. phones that are now digitalized.

"We're thinking about the problem we see coming in the future," Kallstrom said. "It's less costly now than to do it five years down the road."

FBI Director William Sessions has proposed that telephone companies integrate their technology so that law enforcement agencies can obtain more easily court-ordered wiretapping over digital lines. Telephone companies did not have an immediate response to the proposal.

BellSouth spokesman Bill McCloskey said there have been many solution for the problem identified by the government. "Whatever we provide, our primary concern is to make sure we're compensated by government or the consumer. Whatever it costs, you can divide it by the 150 million telephone subscribers."

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the subcommittee on telecommunications and finance, said the proposal, "at first blush, appears to be a `Big Brother' solution when the industry already has taken steps to solve the problem."

Digital technology uses different channels for voice and signal transmission. Traditional analog telephone technology uses one channel for voice and transmission signal.

Each digital channel can carry hundreds of voice conversations, and it's currently impossible to segregate the conversations to be monitored by law enforcement agents. By law, the government must have a court order each time it taps a telephone line.

The proposed legislation, Kallstrom said, does not ask for any more authority than is already covered by law.

Asked if the proposals would allow surveillance of computer networks that rely on telephone lines, Kallstrom said he had "no knowledge if there had ever been warrants for electronic data. We just want to maintain our present ability in a new technological environment."

Jim Moody, FBI section chief on organized crime, said the FBI uses court-ordered surveillance primarily against terrorists, kidnappers, drug cartels and secret criminal organizations.

The proposed legislation puts the responsibility of obtaining the surveillance "product" with the telephone and communications companies. Present law requires that communications companies deliver court-ordered surveillance and "not frustrate" those requests, said Al Bayse, FBI assistant director for technical services.

Bayse estimated the cost to change the technology nationwide to accommodate law enforcement could cost "tens of millions, but only pennies to the taxpayer."

Moody did not know if telephone companies would pass the cost on to the consumer. If they did, FBI spokesman Tom Jones said the cost would be "less than 20 cents per monthly phone bill if implemented today."