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FBI Creates Surveillance Unit to Build Backdoors into the Web

May 28, 20125 mins
Data and Information SecurityData CenterEnterprise Applications

The FBI is plowing ahead with plans to wiretap the web and requiring backdoors for eavesdropping on electronic communications. In fact, the FBI has a new web surveillance unit to help create the backdoor technology. The CEO of VPN Reviews said, 'Soon, the government will know more about us than we know about ourselves.'

The FBI still claims it is going dark and its monitoring abilities could be rendered ineffective without surveillance backdoors built into communications, according to FBI Director Robert Mueller’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In fact, the feds plowed ahead with their plans that date back to at least 2008 by forming a new electronic communications surveillance unit to be housed in the National Domestic Communications Assistance Center (NDCAC) in Quantico. “Congress included $8,244,000 and 13 positions for the FBI to establish and operate a NDCAC,” the FBI reported. But the expansion of eavesdropping capabilities concerns all of us, including people who use VPNs for privacy or security, or both. “In spite of what the American public has displayed that they want, their leaders and authority figures continue to ignore them,” stated Michael Maxstead the CEO of VPNReviewz. “Soon, the government will know more about us than we know about ourselves.”

“The increasingly mobile, complex, and varied nature of communication has created a growing challenge to our ability to conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance of criminals and terrorists,” testified Mueller. “Many communications providers are not required to build or maintain intercept capabilities in their ever-changing networks. As a result, they are too often not equipped to respond to information sought pursuant to a lawful court order.”

“And for this reason Constitutional rights to individual privacy, take a back seat to national security…haven’t we been warned of this?” asked Maxstead. He does not believe the FBI can avoid abusing this kind of power as it has in the past. He points toward the FBI’s abuse of NSLs “to prove to America how corrupt a single agency could become in such a short time. Do we really want to risk this kind of abuse again? And this is on a much larger scale.”

First the FBI proposed amending the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to require social-networking sites, VOIP providers, email or instant message services, and even online gaming consoles to be “wiretap-friendly.” If you recall, Microsoft’s spy and pry patents highlighted that Skype would be law enforcement friendly. The FBI’s draft legislation, according to CNET, bizarrely states, “If you create a service, product, or app that allows a user to communicate, you get the privilege of adding that extra coding.”

Then CNET’s Declan McCullagh reported the FBI created a “secretive surveillance unit” tasked with inventing technology to help law enforcement “eavesdrop on Internet and wireless communications.” U.S. Marshals and DEA agents will also work at the FBI’s new Domestic Communications Assistance Center, according to CNET. “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.” The EFF told CNET that the FBI is “doing the best they can to avoid being transparent.”

While we can’t see exactly what the FBI’s plan is, there are some people who doubt the whole “going dark” issue. The Hill previously reported the FBI believes a “bomb plot is a reason to renew electronic surveillance powers.” Unsurprisingly Mueller criticized the media for distorting the FBI’s needs, according to Politico. Although the FBI is being secretive and claiming law enforcement will be hobbled without even more backdoors in communications, a quick glance at the new Google Transparency Report shows that USA user data requests were indisputably the highest, up from 4,601 to 5,950. The nearly 6,000 requests, in which Google complied fully or partially 93% of the time, were in regard to 11,057 user/accounts since there may be “multiple requests that ask for data for the same entity or a single request that specifies one or more entities.” Google explained, “The number of requests we receive for user account information as part of criminal investigations has increased year after year.”

That sort of increased access hardly seems like the FBI or law enforcement as a whole is “going dark.” Just the same, the government’s desire to wiretap all communications probably won’t be quenched until, as Maxstead warned, the government knows more about you than even you know about yourself. If this continues, maybe next Memorial Day we’ll be decorating the grave of Privacy?

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.