The FBI was rather public with its recent demands for backdoor access to websites and Internet services across the board, but as the agency awaits those secret surveillance powers, they're working on their own end to have those e-spy capabilities.
Not much has been revealed about one of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s newest projects, the Domestic Communications Assistance Center, and the FBI will probably try to keep it that way. Despite attempting to keep the DCAC largely under wraps, an investigation spearheaded by Cnet’s Declan McCullagh is quickly collecting details about the agency’s latest endeavor.
Governmental agencies have been searching seemingly without end for ways to pry into the personal communications of computer users in America. Congressional approval and cooperation from Internet companies could be an eternity away, of course, but the FBI might be able to bypass that entirely by taking the matter into their own hands. At the Quantico, Virginia headquarters of the DCAC, federal workers are believed to be already hard at work on projects that will put FBI spies into the Internet, snooping on unsuspecting American’s Skype calls, instant messages and everything else carried out with a mouse and keyboard.
As McCullagh reports, the DCAC doesn’t have a website, let alone press releases detailing their plans. The sparse information that is available, however, paints a scary picture of what the FBI has in mind — and what they aim to accomplish with an $8 million handout from Congress.
In the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s budget request with the Department of Justice for the next fiscal year, the report’s authors write that “the recently established Department-wide Domestic Communications Assistance Center (DCAC)” is being “led by the FBI to address the growing technological gap between law enforcement’s electronic surveillance capabilities and the number and variety of communications devices available to the public.”
In other words, the FBI is pissed that wiretapping isn’t as easy as it used to be.
“The foremost challenge confronting US law enforcement is the diminishing ability to conduct lawful electronic intercepts on current and emerging communications technologies as communications providers continue to offer new and improved services and features to customers,” continues the report. “Addressing this issue is critical to maintain law enforcement’s ability to conduct lawful criminal intercepts.”
One year earlier, the Department of Justice revealed that they were looking to establish the DCAC to “facilitate the sharing of technology between law enforcement agencies” and “build more effective relations with the communications industry.”
In a testimony before Congress last year, then general counsel of the FBI, Valerie Caproni, told lawmakers, “In order to enforce the law and protect our citizens from threats to public safety, it is critically important that we have the ability to intercept electronic communications with court approval.”
“We confront, with increasing frequency, service providers who do not fully comply with court orders in a timely and efficient manner. Some providers cannot comply with court orders right away but are able to do so after considerable effort and expense by the provider and the government,” added Caproni.
On USAjobs.gov, the government-run website that advertises federal job openings, it is revealed that the FBI has recently been looking to staff two DCAC positions that pay upwards of $136,000 annually and calls for, among other requirements, “Experience in conducting and/or managing electronic surveillance operations.” The list of duties for the agency’s new hires includes interacting “effectively with LE personnel, management, co-workers and the communications industry to ensure that work performed correlates to defined objectives.” In a separate statement from the FBI, the agency says they are bringing a dozen staffers on board.
Following McCullagh’s expose, the FBI reached out to the reporter and, in not as few words, all but confirmed his fears.
“[T]he NDCAC will have the functionality to leverage the research and development efforts of federal, state, and local law enforcement with respect to electronic surveillance capabilities and facilitate the sharing of technology among law enforcement agencies. Technical personnel from other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies will be able to obtain advice and guidance if they have difficulty in attempting to implement lawful electronic surveillance court orders,” reads the FBI’s statement.
In an attempt to sugarcoat the DCAC, the spokesperson pleads with McCullogh, "It is important to point out that the NDCAC will not be responsible for the actual execution of any electronic surveillance court orders and will not have any direct operational or investigative role in investigations. It will provide the technical knowledge and referrals in response to law enforcement's requests for technical assistance.”
The FBI, they say, won’t pull the trigger themselves. They claim they’ll just build the gun and the bullets and set their sights on the World Wide Web.
A similar legislation north of the border, the C-30 surveillance bill, will allow Canadian authorities similar powers, if passed.