Aircell reveals 'Super CALEA' security deal with the feds

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Aircell holds an arrangement with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) whereby it can immediately shut down its in-flight Internet system on any aircraft if the agency determines that a security threat exists on a flight, under an arrangement referred to as "Super CALEA".

Congress in 1994 enacted the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), a wiretapping regulation that was intended to preserve the ability of law enforcement to conduct electronic surveillance by requiring that telecommunications carriers and equipment manufacturers design their equipment, facilities, and services to ensure that they have the necessary surveillance capabilities in place.

Eleven years later, in 2005, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determined that providers of certain broadband and interconnected voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services must also be prepared to accommodate law enforcement wiretaps.

"CALEA allows the feds to collect information about who is using the [Aircell] system, on which devices, and what the traffic looks like. Aircell can give [law enforcement] any information they need in real time," notes Aircell director of business development and strategy Timothy Twohig.

Aircell does more than comply with CALEA, however. Under an arrangement referred to as Super CALEA, Aircell in an emergency situation "can shut off service to the entire plane or to individuals or groups" without shutting it off to US air marshals, he reveals.

Twohig says Aircell is "comfortable with this requirement" and has been "very cooperative with the federal agencies".

Eight US carriers have signed on as customers of Aircell's Gogo in-flight Internet service, which runs over an air-to-ground (ATG) link. Aircell has also attracted a growing clientele in the business aviation community.