The FBI Is Complaining That Its $8.4 Billion Budget Isn't Enough To Keep Up With Criminal Technology

from the more-access-to-everything,-please dept

It always amuses me when the FBI – an investigative agency with an $8.4 billion budget — starts complaining about how it’s falling behind in the tech race. Criminals are apparently going to outwit the agency using nothing but Snapchat and Yo! unless… well, no one interviewed seems to know how to complete that sentence, but, rest assured, g-men brows are intensely furrowed.

Federal law enforcement and intelligence authorities say they are increasingly struggling to conduct court-ordered wiretaps on suspects because of a surge in chat services, instant-messaging and other online communications that lack the technical means to be intercepted.

A “large percentage” of wiretap orders to pick up the communications of suspected spies and foreign agents are not being fulfilled, FBI officials said. Law enforcement agents are citing the same challenge in criminal cases; agents, they say, often decline to even seek orders when they know firms lack the means to tap into a suspect’s communications in real time.

As you read the following words, keep in mind that this is an agency that is rolling out a facial recognition database and utilizes cell tower spoofers on a regular basis. This is an agency whose name is on every bulk metadata request that runs through the FISA court. This is an agency that can open so-called “threat assessments” with less than reasonable suspicion. All that’s missing from its set of tools (and what’s listed above is a very truncated and incomplete list) apparently is the permission to seize communications carte blanche.

One former U.S. official said that each year “hundreds” of individualized wiretap orders for foreign intelligence are not being fully executed because of a growing gap between the government’s legal authority and its practical ability to capture communications — or what bureau officials have called “going dark.”

Officials have expressed alarm for several years about the expansion of online communication services that — unlike traditional landlines and cellphone communications — lack intercept capabilities because they are not required by law to build them in.

What the FBI is suggesting without actually suggesting it is for someone to saddle online communication services with the same built-in intercept points the FBI has enjoyed for years with more traditional communication services.

Unfortunately for the FBI, now is not the time to be asking for more access. Everyone’s trying to build surveillance-proof technology and the FBI is concerned this will usher in a new wave of criminal activity by placing bad guys several steps ahead of investigating agents. The FBI would probably like CALEA (the law that forced broadband and internet phone services to provide the same wiretap access as traditional phone services) to be updated to include a variety of instant messaging services and other software that routes around law enforcement-friendly intercepts/backdoors.

The problem is that the FBI isn’t going to find many legislators (beyond the usual surveillance state cheerleaders) to back it up. So, it’s apparently just going to complain loudly about it until someone feels motivated to do something about it. The FBI complains about encryption even though the US Courts’ wiretap report showed that law enforcement rarely, if ever, runs into this. (Federal government agencies have only run into it 52 times in the last decade and defeated the encryption every single time.) Still, its reps say this nearly nonexistent problem is a “big challenge.”

Those sitting between the FBI and tech companies are stopping just short of rolling their eyes at these agency reps’ pained statements.

“The reality is law enforcement and governments have a dozen methods other than wiretaps to get the investigation material they need,” said Mike Janke, chief executive and cofounder of Silent Circle, a firm that provides encrypted phone and instant message services, and a former Navy SEAL. “They don’t need to have access to everything in the world.”

The FBI still has plenty of tools to use, including the court system itself, which could be used to compel cooperation from services not covered by CALEA. This is in addition to whatever techniques and tools it’s currently using, some of which have yet to be exposed. The agency has plenty of funding and the access to cutting-edge technology. Despite this, the agency seems to be calling for a legislative fix and its top officials are already delivering impassioned talking points about the crime wave just over the horizon.

“All we’re trying to say is, in the world today, we’re facing this problem,” FBI General Counsel James A. Baker said. “We don’t have a solution. We have a problem that is real and is impacting the lives of real people, of victims of crime on a daily basis.”

By not overtly calling for a legislative fix, the FBI is making a small nod toward the “safety vs. privacy debate.” But it sounds almost identical to statements made by other pro-surveillance proponents. The FBI seems to think the real issue here is that the public isn’t sufficiently fearful. It shares this attitude with too many government entities to count.

The FBI isn’t losing the tech arms race. With its budget, informants, national security letters, subpoenas, advances in surveillance tech, etc, the FBI has the jump on far less organized and less powerful criminal enterprises. The DOJ used this same faux concern during its oral arguments in support of warrantless phone searches. It didn’t work out for it then and, hopefully, the FBI’s poor-us bitching won’t work out for it now.

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “The FBI Is Complaining That Its $8.4 Billion Budget Isn't Enough To Keep Up With Criminal Technology”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

I’m always amazed by this law enforcer idea that the only way to get evidence is to snoop on communications among suspected criminals. Do they not even consider the idea that maybe the physical evidence generated as a necessary consequence of the crime would be both easier to get and more useful in a court of law?

Anonymous Coward says:

Everyone’s trying to build surveillance-proof technology and the FBI is concerned this will usher in a new wave of criminal activity by placing bad guys several steps ahead of investigating agents.

Hey geniuses, maybe everyone wouldn’t be building surveillance-proof technology IF YOU WEREN’T SPYING ON ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

When will they learn...

Necessity is the mother of invention. If they had only respected the Constitution and not overstepped their bounds they wouldn’t have created (or at least hastened) the necessity for secure communications for the vast majority of people. Most of these technologies don’t get developed without funding and funding (or at least widespread adoption) doesn’t happen without popular demand. Consider this: Wiretapping capability occurred a long time ago, yet there was no urgency in the public to thwart technologically this capability. Why? Because a boundary was understood and most often respected. Now they have destroyed the respect for that boundary and created the urgency in the public for ridding them of the capability. They made this happen by creating the need for it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: When will they learn...

Furthermore, it is telling that their answer is the same answer they have to any problem: throw money at it. You know what? Maybe if you stepped back, had a little humility, recognized and admitted that you fucked up big time, then made some positive steps toward rebuilding the trust you violated, you might get some help from the public in solving some of the problems that you presently are whining about, like you might find it easier to get people to support you in using technology to help you target individuals who are truly threats even without raising your already obscene budget.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:


Look at page 5 of their budget summary at:

Here’s what it says:
$3.3 billion for terrorism.
$2.7 billion for every other “federal crime”

(Curiously they also list $1.7 billion for “intelligence” separate from the budgets for crime/counter-terrorism. Why is the FBI spending money on intelligence unrelated to crime/terrorism?)

tomczerniawski says:


So, their budget is being stretched too thin by the great volume of wire-tapping they must perform…

Anyone wanna join my newly founded drug cartel slash plutonium smuggling ring? I’m looking to expand operations into human trafficking, and could sure use a DND (director of nefarious deeds) with experience in the field. Al Qaeda applicants welcome!

Anonymous Coward says:

Having worked for the government, I can tell you, the first thing you do when you have nothing to do is “DEMAND A BIGGER BUDGET!”. If your not always asking for more, then it appears that your not living up to the budget you already have.

The busiest agencies don’t have time to put in for more money, equipment, employees while the agencies doing nothing worth anyone’s time have all kinds of time to waste requesting more stuff.

Anonymous Coward says:

The one thing we can always be sure of, government and it’s branches never figure they are big enough to do the job. Nor do they ever consider they have enough budget.

I am flabbergasted their budget has already climbed to $4 billion. Fake explosives must be terribly expensive. Or maybe it’s the cost of all those stingrays across the country?

Somehow our forefathers got along without all those tools, spent far less money, and you know what? They were thought of better by the populace they are to serve.

Until they can restore the confidence of the people I would say we need to cut budget on them. We don’t need to make a criminal of someone who had no opportunity, ability, no knowledge of how to do a crime without the FBI’s aid to make it happen. We don’t need to house what would be otherwise non-criminals in the prison system. We don’t need to pay for their farce of a trial and the legal system it takes.

That money would be better spent actually making a health care system that worked as all the rest of the first world countries have except the US.

In fact, less prisoners would free up some money for budgeting. When you have people in labs falsifying evidence to make sure they are guilty, maybe taking care of that would lower the prisoner count.

There is lots to say against the FBI and until it cleans house of all the corrupt people in it, it needs less funds, not more.

jdc (profile) says:

Gotta love the message.

To quote you:

“With its budget, informants, national security letters, subpoenas, advances in surveillance tech, etc, the FBI has the jump on far less organized and less powerful criminal enterprises.”

I agree wholeheartedly. The FBI is a far better funded criminal enterprise with far more capabilities and tools than the other less organized and less powerful criminal enterprises.

Padpaw (profile) says:

Re: Re: I Hope They Can't Pass Such A Thing

Have you seen what makes a person a suspected domestic terrorist in the states these days. 99% of Americans fall under that list. Your breaking laws every day without knowing about it. Which incidentally you no longer have to knowingly break a law to be charged with it, you just have to commit it. Here are some fun example of what makes a person a suspected domestic terrorist.

-If you wear a hoodie in public
-if you try and hide what your texting, because only terrorists care about privacy
-if you voice dissent about how your government does things
-if your missing a thumb
-if your a Christian
-if your a tea party member

my favourite of them all

If you have over 7 days of food congratulations you are a terrorist threat according to the FBI and the DoJ

Capt ICE Enforcer says:

Please understand.

Please understand that the FBI has been using cave painting techniques for their interviews, along with soup cans with really long strings for communication. Without this money, they won’t be able to buy audio recording equipment to bring them up to the nineteenth century. And suspect terrorists won’t have their pretty voices heard on 8 track.

Richard (profile) says:

The same FBI

This FBI that has an $8.4 Billion budget, is this the same FBI that cannot afford to record interviews because (amongst other things)

“There are 56 fields [sic] offices and over 400 resident agencies in the FBI. A requirement to record all custodial interviews throughout the agency would not only involve massive logistic and transcription support “.

Anonymous Coward says:

Maybe the FBI needs to get back to doing what it was originally created to do, things like chasing down bank robbers and other violent criminals on the run who repeatedly cross state lines to avoid capture.

But endless mission-creep has turned this small investigative agency into a giant full-service national police force, wasting much of its time enforcing laws that no one wants or needs.

Groaker (profile) says:

The FBI has repeatedly demonstrated incompetence, corruption and the abuse of power under the color of the law. A listing of FBI abuses would result in stupification by any reader.
But one example is particularly emblematic of the absurd behavior of this organization.

A billion dollars was wasted by the FBI in an attempt to build an information technology system that failed. Thomas Drake attempted to go through the chain of command to deal with the problems of incompetence and corruption in this project. The command level evinced no interest in this disastrous project, so Drake became a whistleblower. For his troubles Drake was eventually charged under the espionage act and faced 35 years in jail. All for reporting incompetence and corruption.

Eventually worn out by FBI pile on charges, Drake plead guilty to a misdemeanor and served a year of probation and community service.

The full story of Drake’s persecution is widely available on the net. Wikipedia is a fair place to start.

Drake is not alone, and no one knows how many would tell stories of similar corruption and incompetence were they not terrified of retribution by this agency.

And the FBI wants more money to waste, when the only competence most of the leadership has shown is in the abuse of power.

PS — Mike, please let me know if I got this right this time.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...