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.

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Filed Under: fbi, going dark, technology


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  1. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 29 Jul 2014 @ 5:09pm

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

    Pro tip: if you think you might intentionally engage in lawbreaking, it's probably better not to state that in public.

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