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Former FBI agent: All phone calls recorded, no digital communication secure

May 05, 20136 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

A former FBI counterterrorism agent says the government captures and stores all your phone calls and all other digital communications.

Last week, the press focused on Katherine Russell, the widow of Boston bombing suspect Tamarlan Tsarnaev, as officials have been trying to determine what she knew about the bombing. After investigators found “al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine and other radical Islamist material on her computer,” they focused on phone calls between Russell and her husband to determine if she participated in the plot. On the night the FBI released the surveillance picture of him, she talked to Tsarnaev on the phone. CNN Out Front host Erin Burnett questioned Tim Clemente, former FBI counterterrorism agent, about the government’s surveillance capabilities.

Burnett: Tim, is there any way, obviously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone companies to give that up at this point. It’s not a voice mail. It’s just a conversation. There’s no way they actually can find out what happened, right, unless she tells them? No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It’s not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out. So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible. No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.




The next night, CNN’s Carol Costello asked Clemente, “You said that if Katherine Russell does not divulge the contents of this phone call that the FBI had other methods of finding out what was said. What did you mean by that?

Clemente: Well, on the national security side of the house, in the federal government, you know, we have assets. There are lots of assets at our disposal throughout the intelligence community and also not just domestically but overseas. Those assets allow us to gain information intelligence on things that we can’t use ordinarily in a criminal investigation, but are used for major terrorism investigations or counter intelligence investigations.

Costello: You’re not talking about voicemail, right? What are you talking about exactly?

Clemente: I’m talking about all digital communications are — there’s a way to look at digital communications in the past. I can’t go into detail of how that’s done or what’s done. But I can tell you that no digital communication is secure. So these communications will be found out. The conversation will be known.

Last year, NSA expert James Bamford claimed NSA software secretly examines “every email, phone call and tweet as they zip by.” A Congressional hearing was later held to determine if such domestic spying on digital communications were true. NSA Chief General Keith Alexander answered “no” fourteen different times.

Then remember when NSA whistleblower William Binney said the NSA has dossiers on nearly every U.S. citizen? Last summer, Def Con founder Dark Tangent, aka Jeff Moss from the Homeland Security Advisory Council, asked Alexander, “So does the NSA really keep a file on everyone, and if so, how can I see mine?” Alexander replied, “No, we don’t. Absolutely not. Anybody who tells you we’re keeping files or dossiers on the American people knows that’s not true.”

During Alexander’s keynote at Def Con, he said “the NSA is authorized ‘to collect foreign targets – think of terrorists – outside the United States’.” The FISA Amendment Act “allows us to use some of our infrastructure to do that. We may, incidentally, in targeting a bad guy, hit on somebody from a good guy.” Oh, and by the way, a new Justice Department report [pdf] showed that in 2012, all wiretap warrant requests were granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

In theory, Congress and We The People freaked out over potential mass surveillance in 2003 and the Information Awareness Office was defunded. In reality, the total information awareness program has clearly continued under different names.

If there is a way for the FBI to look at “all digital communications” as Clemente alleges, then how could that ever be considered “going dark?” It’s not like the FBI is waiting around for legistlative approval. Last year we found out that the FBI had a new web surveillance unit to help create backdoors for eavesdropping on electronic communications. The expansion of CALEA, requiring backdoor capabilities to intercept all online communications, would more likely make all that warrantless wiretapping legal.

Then again, it’s already “technically legal,” Binney said at the Def Con panel “Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The NSA and the Constitution.” Binney said it was “technically legal,” so “long as no human listens to or reads any of the harvested communications without a warrant.” Bamford agreed, before adding, “An intercept doesn’t take place until it’s actually listened to, until somebody puts on some earphones or actually reads some text on a screen.” The panel concluded that the NSA spy chief was “playing word games.”

Although we know our digital communications are being sucked up and stored, Clemente’s comments about no digital communications being secure is another confirmation of the fact. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out:

Mass surveillance is the hallmark of a tyrannical political culture. But whatever one’s views on that, the more that is known about what the U.S. government and its surveillance agencies are doing, the better. This admission by this former FBI agent on CNN gives a very good sense for just how limitless these activities are.

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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.