Doubtless to the agency's chagrin, details of the FBI's plans for enhanced Internet surveillance are slowly starting to leak out.
It's no big surprise, of course, that such plans are afoot. After all, for every Internet activist who believes that information wants to be free, there's a law enforcement operative who believes that information wants to be collected.
Let's not rush to embrace the conspiracy theory that the FBI wants to monitor your every online move; but it certainly wants to monitor every online move of potential criminals and terrorists, and being able to track everyone, everywhere is always going to make that easier.
The nub of the agency's problem is that, with the increased use of email, not to mention social platforms and services like Skype, its traditional wire-tapping skills are becoming increasingly irrelevant. This has been recognized for some time. In a statement addressed to the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni explained that:
Some providers are currently obligated by law to have technical solutions in place prior to receiving a court order to intercept electronic communications, but do not maintain those solutions in a manner consistent with their legal mandate. Other providers have no such existing mandate and simply develop capabilities upon receipt of a court order. In our experience, some providers actively work with the government to develop intercept solutions, while others do not have the technical expertise or resources to do so. As a result, on a regular basis, the government is unable to obtain communications and related data, even when authorized by a court to do so. We call this capabilities gap the "Going Dark" problem.
The Feds' response to the "Going Dark" problem has been to create the Domestic Communications Assistance Center (DCAC), a sort of R&D hub to improve electronic surveillance techniques. The Justice Department is allocating $15 million to establishing the DCAC (2012 security budget request here).
While the DCAC has been described, reasonably enough, as "secretive" -- it's a spying operation, after all -- its appearance in government documents means it's hardly secret.
What's arguably more disturbing is the pressure the FBI is bringing on lawmakers to amend the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to mandate the creation of "back doors" into social media platforms, email systems, and services like Skype and Google Hangouts. This would meet Caproni's concern that providers are technically incapable of responding to surveillance requirements, even when backed by a court order.
Internet service providers seem reluctant to install such "back doors" on a voluntary basis, although it remains to be seen how forcefully they will oppose legislation to make them compulsory. Will it be possible to stir up a new anti-SOPA/PIPA frenzy?
Would it even be justified? After all, do we want law enforcement agencies to be prevented from conducting legitimate surveillance activities, simply because the technical barriers are too great? Is there anything wrong with the FBI assembling the technology necessary to execute a warrant?
It's a trust issue, of course. And in 2012, there isn't a lot of trust going around.
— Kim Davis , Community Editor, Internet Evolution