FBI Web Surveillance: Bureau Creates Unit To Eavesdrop On Internet Communications

FBI Forms Secret Online Eavesdropping Unit

With the Federal Bureau of Investigation's recent push for web wiretaps and increased Internet surveillance, the U.S. seems to be edging closer to the fictional state described in George Orwell's "1984."

As CNET reported earlier this week, the FBI recently created a secret web-surveillance unit, the Domestic Communications Assistance Center, aimed at creating tech that would allow the authorities to more easily eavesdrop on Internet and wireless communications. The DCAC will act as hub for all web surveillance, but will not be directly involved in executing Internet wiretapping court orders or operating investigations if proposed legislation passes as planned.

The DCAC is a collaborative effort between the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency. According to CNET, the center will not only be responsible for developing new wiretapping tech and analyzing court ordered data, but will also be charged with tracking and decoding Skype conversations.

The DCAC is a brick-and-mortar product of the FBI's "Going Dark" Internet wiretapping program. As more calls are taking place online through voice over IP (VoIP) services like Skype, the FBI, in particular, has made it quite clear that it is not happy with the difficulty of monitoring these types of conversations.

In order to bypass this obstacle, the FBI is asking Internet companies to go along with legislation that would require web companies like Facebook, Google and Skype to make their platforms "wiretapping-friendly." The proposed legislation is an amendment to a 1994 law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which only applies to telecommunications companies.

Although the Federal Communications Commission extended the law to apply to broadband networks in 2004, the FBI is seeking to expand it even further. So far, the proposed amendment has been approved by the Department of Justice, but has yet to be introduced in the legislature.

Attorneys who work in the Internet privacy industry are skeptical the FBI's proposed amendment will find much success.

"Unlike the Patriot Act, which was enacted shortly after 9/11, unless the FBI can show current immediate concern for harm, it will be a difficult initiative to push through," Marc Roth, an attorney at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, told TechNewsWorld. He added that the FBI will likely see great opposition from civil liberties groups.

By requiring mandatory backdoors within social networking sites, VoIP services and messaging programs, the FBI would be able to quickly and easily tap into any online communications.

The purpose and rationale of the DCAC, which is also referred to as the National Domestic Communications Assistance Center or NDCAC, was outlined in FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni's February 2011 testimony before a House Judiciary Committee.

In a statement sent to CNET's Declan McCullagh, the FBI summed up the description of the DCAC (used herein as NDCAC) as follows:

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.

Funding for the DCAC is provided under the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2012. In sum, Congress allocated $8,244,000 and 13 positions for operation of the center.

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