FBI: Surveillance "going dark" or obsessed with porn and doing a poor job?

Is the FBI's digital surveillance ability "going dark," or are FBI cyber agents simply obsessed with investigating porn as the DOJ audit suggests?

As always there are conflicting reports on the growing digital surveillance capabilities of the FBI. Is that ability "going dark" or is it a matter of incompetence among cyber agents who are poorly trained in matters of protecting national security?

According to a recent DOJ audit, the FBI is not doing very well when it comes to investigating cyber intrusions. The redacted audit [PDF] reviewed 36 field agents in 10 FBI offices. Part of the problem is that the 14 agencies that share responsibility for online counter-espionage, do not play nicely together because they do not share information well. Instead of spending most of the time trying to catch cyber criminals, the report found that the FBI is obsessed with investigating child porn. 41% of FBI cyber agents investigate online child porn, compared to 19% of cyber agents who investigate national security intrusions.

Within the FBI, there is a lack of experience in counterintelligence, networking, and forensics to investigate national security matters. Child porn and intellectual property rights violations require less complex investigating. 13% of the agents felt ill-equipped to do their job. Five of the 36 agents interviewed said they felt unqualified to investigate national security intrusions. There is a rotation of cyber agents every three years, but one fed said it might take two and half years just to get "up to speed" in investigating national security intrusions. Another agent said the "rotation of agents diminished the FBI's credibility within the cyber community when positions are backfilled with inexperienced personnel."

Perhaps that is why software such as Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier (CIPAV) was developed, sort of like spying-for-dummies? The EFF received documents for a 2007 FOIA request, showing use of CIPAV "since at least 2001." When this FBI spyware is installed on a target's computer, the FBI collects:

  • IP Address
  • Media Access Control (MAC) address
  • "Browser environment variables"
  • Open communication ports
  • List of the programs running
  • Operating system type, version, and serial number
  • Browser type and version
  • Language encoding
  • The URL that the target computer was previously connected to
  • Registered computer name
  • Registered company name
  • Currently logged in user name
  • Other information that would assist with "identifying computer users, computer software installed, [and] computer hardware installed

Yet even the FBI's Crypto Unit had issues about CIPAV being used "needlessly by some agencies," and being handed out to another "Gov't agency without any oversight or protection for our tool/technique." The FBI even had difficulty tying to decide what legal process it would take to authorize use of CIPAV.

It's not only the cyber agents who seem lost or ill-equipped and bungle so many investigations, such as when FBI agents wiretapped the wrong guy during "Project-Hedge." The feds mistakenly tapped "80 phone conversations over five days" of a Cingular Wireless technician in Boston who had nothing to do with the FBI's insider-trading probe. FBI agents apparently knew the tech's name, but still continued to record the technician's cell phone calls, making notes of his conversations with his girlfriend and co-workers. While the FBI allegedly blamed it on a "technical problem caused by AT&T," wiretap experts said it was an avoidable error since the tech had identified himself numerous times. According to the NY Post, retired FBI agent James Wedick said, "'It gets me annoyed. It's a problem that doesn't need to happen. If you're meticulous and careful it doesn't need to happen."

Over and again, we've seen the FBI tighten surveillance, only to be spying on innocent citizens. And although the EFF did learn something about software the FBI used for electronic spying, that information is from 2007. Who knows what's happening in 2011? It seems unlikely the net is "going dark" for the feds' power of surveillance. Yet the estimated annual secrecy cost [PDF] exceeded $10 billion last year, according to the Information Security Oversight Office.

If the FBI is doing such a poor job during investigations, especially cyber security investigations, why increase surveillance potential, such as the push of expanding CALEA (Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act) so cyber agents or other intelligence agencies can potentially misuse power and botch more investigations? The Justice Department is pushing for the feds to remotely uninstall Coreflood botnet from computers running Windows. ThreatLevel reported the "opt out" is "buried" in a "2010 Microsoft document titled 'Microsoft TCP/IP Host Name Resolution Order'." While we certainly don't need a bunch of computers infected with botnets, how many people truly believe the FBI's assertion that the process will not access or obtain data from user files on an infected computer?

Foreign digital attacks against the U.S. continue to increase each year. Why don't the feds rethink the strategy of educating cyber agents so those agents can work on national security as opposed to spending so much time and money on investigating child porn and intellectual rights like it might be working for the MPAA or the RIAA? Sometimes I feel sorry for the cyber agents, cause they can't all be "bad guys" under the guise of being "good guys" abusing power. Maybe they simply don't know how to effectively battle national security cyber intrusions? The FBI's battle against Coreflood was a major victory. So which is it? Is the FBI's ability to successfully and electronically investigate "going dark"? Or is what's going dark the constitutional rights of American citizens by means of domestic spying as FBI patterns of misconduct continue?

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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