FBI quietly forms secretive Net-surveillance unit

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The FBI has recently formed a secretive surveillance unit with an ambitious goal: to invent technology that will let police more readily eavesdrop on Internet and wireless communications.

The establishment of the Quantico, Va.-based unit, which is also staffed by agents from the U.S. Marshals Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency, is a response to technological developments that FBI officials believe outpace law enforcement’s ability to listen in on private communications.

While the FBI has been tight-lipped about the creation of its Domestic Communications Assistance Center, or DCAC — it declined to respond to requests made two days ago about who’s running it, for instance — CNET has pieced together information about its operations through interviews and a review of internal government documents.

DCAC’s mandate is broad, covering everything from trying to intercept and decode Skype conversations to building custom wiretap hardware or analyzing the gigabytes of data that a wireless provider or social network might turn over in response to a court order. It’s also designed to serve as a kind of surveillance help desk for state, local, and other federal police.

The center represents the technological component of the bureau’s “Going Dark” Internet wiretapping push, which was allocated $54 million by a Senate committee last month. The legal component is no less important: as CNET reported on May 4, the FBI wants Internet companies not to oppose a proposed law that would require social-networks and providers of VoIP, instant messaging, and Web e-mail to build in backdoors for government surveillance.

During an appearance last year on Capitol Hill, then-FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni referred in passing, without elaboration, to “individually tailored” surveillance solutions and “very sophisticated criminals.” Caproni said that new laws targeting social networks and voice over Internet Protocol conversations were required because “individually tailored solutions have to be the exception and not the rule.”

Caproni was referring to the DCAC’s charge of creating customized surveillance technologies aimed at a specific individual or company, according to a person familiar with the FBI’s efforts in this area.

An FBI job announcement for the DCAC that had an application deadline of May 2 provides additional details. It asks applicants to list their experience with “electronic surveillance standards” including PacketCable (used in cable modems); QChat (used in push-to-talk mobile phones); and T1.678 (VoIP communications). One required skill for the position, which pays up to $136,771 a year, is evaluating “electronic surveillance solutions” for “emerging” technologies.

“We would expect that capabilities like CIPAV would be an example” of what the DCAC will create, says Steve Bock, president of Colorado-based Subsentio, referring to the FBI’s remotely-installed spyware that it has used to identify extortionists, database-deleting hackers, child molesters, and hitmen.

Bock, whose company helps companies comply with the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) and has consulted for the Justice Department, says he anticipates “that Internet and wireless will be two key focus areas” for the DCAC. VoIP will be a third, he says.

For its part, the FBI responded to queries this week with a statement about the center, which it also refers to as the National Domestic Communications Assistance Center (even Caproni has used both names interchangeably), saying:

 

The 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.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.

Here’s the full text of the FBI’s statement in a Google+ post.

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