The Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn’t have the ability to monitor everyone’s one-on-one Internet chats in real-time just yet, but the agency’s chief lawyer says all that should soon change.
FBI general counsel Andrew Weissman discussed the Justice Department’s power to put pressure on cyber-criminals during an address last week at the National Press Club in Washington, and during the engagement he opened up about what exactly the country’s top domestic police patrol wants in their bag of tricks: By the years’ end, the attorney says the FBI hopes to be able to snoop on conversations that occur over the Web by gaining access to up-to-the-second feeds of seemingly secretive chats.
Currently telecommunications within the United States can be bugged with a court’s approval thanks to 1994’s Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA. Weissman, however, warns that as technology advances, agencies like the FBI become increasingly out of luck in terms of tracking down criminals who’ve moved operations off the streets and onto the Web.
“The problem is where we are today. The way we communicate is really not limited to telephone nowadays and sort of the old fashioned picking up the phone and calling someone,” Weismann said.
Online services such as Gmail, Google Voice and DropBox dominate our online lives, Weissman said, but legislation does not yet exist that lets law enforcement tap into Internet accounts with the cyber-equivalent of snooping in on a phone call. While the FBI may obtain court orders to collect archived Internet conversations from the administrators of email services such as Gmail, Weissman said that won’t do. The ability to actually intercepting online chats is something the FBI wants to have, and Weissman said they are working on having it ready by the end of the year.
“You do have laws that say you need to keep things for a certain amount of time, but in the cyber realm you can have companies that keep things for five minutes,” he said. “You can imagine totally legitimate reasons for that, but you can also imagine how enticing that ability is for people who are up to no good because the evidence comes and it goes.”
Weissman said that legislation in other countries allow law enforcement there to intercept real time dialogs. With such an option overseas, tracking so-called cyber terrorists is as easy as eavesdropping on a phone call.
“We don’t have the ability to go to court and say we need a court order that actually requires the recipient of that order to effectuate the intercept. Other countries have that and I think most people who are not lawyers sort of assume that’s what you’re getting when you go to court,” he said. “You think that you’re getting an order that says, ‘Recipient, you have to actually effectuate the communication.’ Well that’s not what you get. You get something that says that you have to provide technical assistance.”
“The problem with not having [that ability in America] is that we’re making the ability to intercept communications with a court order increasingly obsolete,” Weissman added. “Those communications are being used for criminal conversations, by definition…and so this huge legal apparatus that many of you know about to prevent crimes, to prevent terrorist attacks is becoming increasingly hampered and increasingly marginalized the more we have technology that is not covered by CALEA. Because we don’t have the ability to just go to the court and say ‘You know what, they just have to do it.’”
Weissman added that the ability to obtain a court order that can track Internet chats in real-time “is a huge priority for the FBI” that, although in the works, was halted by last year’s presidential election. Now with the 2012 race out of the picture — and the country’s most transparent president ever elected for another round — the FBI aims to iron out a deal that will let Internet companies like Google tap into their data to watch what’s happening on the Web in instances where waiting five minutes just won’t do. Weissman even hinted at being able to intercept messages sent over entirely different sites, such as a game of Scrabble conducted over Facebook.
Meanwhile, that archived information is still as sought after as ever before. Google’s admitted in the back in January that government requests for user data skyrocketed by 25 percent in the last year, with the US leading the field by far in calls for data disclosure. When Google released statistics only a few weeks earlier showing the first six months of requests, the trend was already something that was hard to ignore.
“This is the sixth time we’ve released this data, and one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise,” Google acknowledges in a blog post published Tuesday, November 13.