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Context of '1997-August 2007 and After: FBI Builds Digital Collection System Network Enabling Real-Time Monitoring of US Communications'

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Starting in 1997, the FBI constructs a sophisticated surveillance system that can perform near-instantaneous wiretaps on almost any telephone, cell phone, and Internet communications device, according to documents declassified in August 2007. The system is called the Digital Collection System Network, or DCSNet. It connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by land-line operators, Internet-telephony companies, and cellular providers. The documents show that DCSNet is, in reporter Ryan Singel’s words, “far more intricately woven into the nation’s telecom infrastructure than observers suspected.” Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor and surveillance expert, calls DCSNet a “comprehensive wiretap system that intercepts wire-line phones, cellular phones, SMS [short message service, a protocol allowing mobile devices to exchange text messages], and push-to-talk systems.” The system is an entire suite of software that together collects, sifts, and stores phone numbers, phone calls, and text messages. The system directly connects FBI wiretapping offices around the country to a sprawling private communications network. DCSNet is composed of three main clients:
bullet The DCS-3000, also called “Red Hook,” handles pen-registers and trap-and-traces, a type of surveillance that collects signaling information but not communications content.
bullet The DCS-6000, or “Digital Storm,” captures and collects the content—the spoken or written communications—of phone calls and text messages.
bullet The most classified system of the three, the DCS-5000, is used for wiretaps targeting spies or terrorists.
Between the three, the system can allow FBI agents to monitor recorded phone calls and messages in real time, create master wiretap files, send digital recordings to translators, track the location of targets in real time using cell-tower information, and stream intercepts to mobile surveillance vans. The entire system is operated through a private, secure and self-contained backbone that is run for the government by Sprint. Singel gives the following example: “The network allows an FBI agent in New York, for example, to remotely set up a wiretap on a cell phone based in Sacramento, California, and immediately learn the phone’s location, then begin receiving conversations, text messages and voicemail pass codes in New York. With a few keystrokes, the agent can route the recordings to language specialists for translation.” Dialed numbers are subjected to data mining, including so-called “link analysis.” The precise number of US phones being monitored and recorded in this way is classified.
Genesis of DCSNet - The system was made possible by the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) (see January 1, 1995), which mandated that telecom providers must build “backdoors” in US telephone switches to be used by government wiretappers. CALEA also ordered telecom firms to install only switching equipment that met detailed wiretapping standards. Before CALEA, the FBI would bring a wiretap warrant to a particular telecom, and that firm would itself create a tap. Now, the FBI logs in directly to the telecom networks and monitors a surveillance target itself through DCSNet. FBI special agent Anthony DiClemente, chief of the Data Acquisition and Intercept Section of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division, says the DCS was originally intended in 1997 to be a temporary solution, but has grown into a full-featured CALEA-collection software suite. “CALEA revolutionizes how law enforcement gets intercept information,” he says. “Before CALEA, it was a rudimentary system that mimicked Ma Bell.” Now, under CALEA, phone systems and Internet service providers have been forced to allow DCSNet to access almost all of its data (see 1997-August 2007 and After).
Security Breaches - The system is vulnerable to hacking and security breaches (see 2003). [Wired News, 8/29/2007]

Entity Tags: Steven Bellovin, Ryan Singel, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Anthony DiClemente, Operational Technology Division (FBI), Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), Digital Collection System, Data Acquisition and Intercept Section (FBI), Sprint/Nextel

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Phil Zimmerman, the creator of the highly regarded “Pretty Good Privacy” (PGP) protocols, sounds an alarm about the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which mandated that telephone providers aid government wiretapping “by installing remote wiretap ports onto their digital switches so that the switch traffic would be available for snooping by law enforcement. After CALEA passed (see January 1, 1995), the FBI no longer had to go on-site with wiretapping equipment in order to tap a line—they could monitor and digitally process voice communications from the comfort of the home office.…CALEA opened up a huge can of worms….” Zimmerman writes, “A year after the CALEA passed, the FBI disclosed plans to require the phone companies to build into their infrastructure the capacity to simultaneously wiretap 1 percent of all phone calls in all major US cities. This would represent more than a thousandfold increase over previous levels in the number of phones that could be wiretapped. In previous years, there were only about a thousand court-ordered wiretaps in the United States per year, at the federal, state, and local levels combined. It’s hard to see how the government could even employ enough judges to sign enough wiretap orders to wiretap 1 percent of all our phone calls, much less hire enough federal agents to sit and listen to all that traffic in real time. The only plausible way of processing that amount of traffic is a massive Orwellian application of automated voice recognition technology to sift through it all, searching for interesting keywords or searching for a particular speaker’s voice. If the government doesn’t find the target in the first 1 percent sample, the wiretaps can be shifted over to a different 1 percent until the target is found, or until everyone’s phone line has been checked for subversive traffic. The FBI said they need this capacity to plan for the future. This plan sparked such outrage that it was defeated in Congress. But the mere fact that the FBI even asked for these broad powers is revealing of their agenda.” [Ars Technica, 12/20/2005]

Entity Tags: Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Phil Zimmerman

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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