Civil Liberties

The FBI's New Tech Spy Shop: "They're doing the best they can to avoid being transparent."


The FBI continues to be determined to find ways to pry open the digital locks that safeguard privacy on the Internet. Earlier this month, CNET's Declan McCullagh reported that the domestic spying agency is pushing tech companies to build fed-friendly backdoors into their software in order to facilitate online wiretapping.

Now he reports that the FBI has started up a special unit responsible for figuring out technological hacks to circumvent built-in software safeguards: the Domestic Communications Assistance Center (DCAC), which has a far-reaching mandate to intercept digital voice and text traffic to build analysis tools capable of sorting the massive amounts of communication data that flows through communications networks. At times, the unit may be called upon to develop digital eavesdropping tools that allow the FBI access to a single company or individual:

During an appearance last year on Capitol Hill, then-FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni referredin 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.

But it's hard to know exactly how the new center will be used, because, as McCullagh reports, the FBI isn't exactly being forthcoming with details:

The FBI has disclosed little information about the DCAC, and what has been previously made public about the center was primarily through budget requests sent to congressional committees. The DCAC doesn't even have a Web page.

"The big question for me is why there isn't more transparency about what's going on?" asksJennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco. "We should know more about the program and what the FBI is doing. Which carriers they're working with—which carriers they're having problems with. They're doing the best they can to avoid being transparent."

How much will the new tech spy shop this cost? McCullagh points to an appropriations report indicating that that last month the Senate tagged $54 million for domestic surveillance. But the report doesn't indicate whether all of that money will be spent on the DCAC.