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Is VoIP A Life-And-Death Matter?

VoIP holds out great benefits for enterprises and individuals alike --- but the technology is so new and insecure that its use may literally be life-threatening.

Sounds like a National Enquirer headline, I know. But that warning comes from the most sober of observers -- David Endler, the new head of the Voice Over IP Security Alliance (VOIPSA). Endler warns that VoIP networks face the same security threats as do traditional networks. And as these networks replace traditional networks everywhere, they'll be attacked more often. He warns that "the worst case scenarios involve life and death implications when you look at emergency services call centers" like 911, police and fire departments.

Life-threatening use of VoIP isn't a futuristic doomsday scenario -- in fact, the danger is already here. VoIP services don't necessarily connect to 911 emergency lines, and so if you only have VoIP at home, you may have no way of getting quick medical, police, or firefighting help. That's already happened, for example to an elderly couple in Texas, who were nearly beaten to death by home invaders, while their daughter frantically dialed 911 on their VoIP phone --- only to get a recording saying that the service wasn't available.

What can be done about it? For starters, keep emergency services such as 911 on their existing networks, and don't port them over to VoIP, at least not until all the security challenges are tackled. And even then, make sure there are multiple backup services.

That doesn't solve the problem that VoIP consumers may face when dialing 911. Here the fault is easily placed --- with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC, in its infinite wisdom, voided all state laws that require 911 access for VoIP phones. So at the moment, there are no state laws or federal regulations that require 911 access for VoIP. The FCC said that it will, at some unstated future time, mandate national 911 requirements. But we don't know when that will happen. And until it does, VoIP customers are at risk.

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