Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai
© Yuri Gripas / Reuters REUTERS
By Jeff John Roberts
March 2, 2017

Update: The FCC on Friday afternoon announced it would grant the emergency waiver to help Jewish centers facing threats to identify anonymous callers.

Jewish community centers across the country are confronting a wave of anonymous bomb threats, which have led to panic and dozens of evacuations since the start of 2017. In response, a powerful politician is asking the Federal Communications Commission to take a step that would make it easier to identify, and possibly catch, the perpetrators.

In a public letter this week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to consider issuing a waiver that would let the Jewish centers get around “No Caller ID” and other features that provide a way for those making the threats to disguise their identity.

Normally, phone companies are forbidden from disclosing a number that a caller wants to keep hidden, except in cases where law enforcement gets a warrant. But in a case last year, involving a school district assailed by a hoaxer who triggered multiple SWAT team visits, the FCC granted an exception that allowed the district to see the true origin of the calls.

Now, Schumer wants the agency to do the same for dozens of Jewish centers, which would give them a better chance at uncloaking those making the threats.

“We cannot give these fear-mongering criminals protection when they are instilling hate and panic,” said Schumer, noting there have been dozens of bomb threats directed at centers in 27 states this year, which in many cases have affected preschoolers and caregivers.

A FCC spokesperson said the agency is considering the request. He also referred to a statement in which Chairman Pai expressed concerned about the wave of threats directed at the Jewish community, and said the agency is “actively exploring” ways to help the centers and law enforcement quickly respond to the threats.

According to Harold Feld, a lawyer and FCC expert at the advocacy group Public Knowledge, the challenge of the anonymous threats is that it’s become easier than ever to disguise a phone number.

“With modern technology, it’s easy to forge a phone number. You can pretend to be a home phone number by using an Internet address [such as one from Skype]. You can also use a burner number and get rid of the phone,” Feld said, referring to the wide variety of apps or cheap phones that offer cheap “burner” numbers.

While law enforcement can go through the courts in order to ask a phone company to turn over information identifying the threat’s source, the process can take weeks—making it that much harder to find the perpetrator. On the other hand, if the Jewish centers (or other threat recipients) can bypass the blocking methods, and get the source of the call in real-time, it could be easier to find the culprit.

The process of bypassing systems that disguise a caller is an exceptional one, says Feld, because such systems offer valuable privacy protection to consumers who pay for it and many others. He notes that many political figures in Washington use Caller ID block and unlisted numbers to prevent people capturing their numbers and harassing them.

But in the case of the Jewish centers, Feld feels bypassing the blocks is reasonable, even though it will disclose the numbers of anyone who uses them, because the situation involves a serious, repeated threat against specific targets. He also said the FCC waiver has a good chance of reducing the threats.

“It can help dissuade them. We’ve seen that terrorist and hate groups are good at using existing technology—you don’t have to be a hacker genius to get a burner phone or forged number,” said Feld, adding they would have a harder time if the FCC issues the waiver.

The FCC spokesperson did not say how long it would take Pai and the agency to consider or approve Schumer’s request. But it took under two months for the school district to get a waiver last year, which suggests the process will take about the same amount of time for the Jewish groups.

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