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Profile: Digital Collection System (DCSNet)
Digital Collection System (DCSNet) was a participant or observer in the following events:
The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) forces broadband Internet service providers such as Vonage to retrofit their networks for government surveillance purposes. The prime beneficiary of that retrofitting is the FBI’s cutting-edge electronic surveillance system known as DCSNet (see 1997-August 2007 and After), which can now monitor those networks. DCSNet also seems capable of handling other cutting-edge technologies such as push-to-talk, peer-to-peer telephony systems such as Skype, caller-ID spoofing, and phone-number portability. [Wired News, 8/29/2007]
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:
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.
The DCS-6000, or “Digital Storm,” captures and collects the content—the spoken or written communications—of phone calls and text messages.
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]
An internal audit shows that the cutting-edge electronic surveillance system, DCSNet (see 1997-August 2007 and After), is unacceptably vulnerable to hacking and exploitation. The audit finds numerous security vulnerabilities, including the allowing of multiple and shared logins, a lack of firewall and antivirus software, and Windows-based vulnerabilities surrounding the operating system’s administrative functions. Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor and surveillance expert, says the risks from insiders are particularly worrisome. “The underlying problem isn’t so much the weaknesses here, as the FBI attitude towards security,” he says. The FBI assumes “the threat is from the outside, not the inside,” and believes that “to the extent that inside threats exist, they can be controlled by process rather than technology.” He considers the entire system at risk both from insiders and hackers from outside. “Any time something is tappable there is a risk,” Bellovin says. “I’m not saying, ‘Don’t do wiretaps,’ but when you start designing a system to be wiretappable, you start to create a new vulnerability. A wiretap is, by definition, a vulnerability from the point of the third party. The question is, can you control it?” [Wired News, 8/29/2007]
An internal FBI audit reveals that US telecommunications companies have repeatedly terminated FBI access to wiretaps of suspected terrorists and other criminal suspects because bureau officials failed to pay outstanding phone bills. The report, written by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, finds that over half of the nearly 1,000 telecommunications bills reviewed by investigators were not paid on time. One unidentified field office allowed a $66,000 invoice to go unpaid. In another instance, a wiretap conducted under a FISA warrant was terminated because of “untimely payment.” The report notes, “Late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence.” [Washington Post, 1/11/2008] Some of the problems stem from telecoms billing multiple times for single surveillance warrants, which ratchets up the bills quickly. Cox Communications, for example, billed the FBI $1,500 for a single, 30-day wiretap order. Telecoms also bill the FBI for Internet connections and phone lines connecting the carrier’s wiretap-ready switches with the FBI’s own wiretap software system, known as the Digital Collection System. Each field office’s computers are connected together with the other offices, and with FBI headquarters, through a secure fiber optic network managed by Sprint. In some cases, FBI officials were confused about whether to use confidential case funds or general funds to pay the telecom bills. Sometimes they were so confused that when the telecoms sent refunds, the officials returned the refunds to the carriers. [Wired News, 1/10/2008] The report faults the agency for poor handling of money used in undercover investigations, which it says makes the agency vulnerable to theft and mishandled invoices. [Reuters, 1/10/2008] This is the latest in a string of audits by Fine’s office that has found serious financial and management problems at the bureau. FBI spokesman Richard Kolko says that in every case the outstanding bills were eventually paid and the intercepted information was recovered. “No evidence was lost in these cases,” he says. FBI assistant director John Miller blames an “inadequate” financial management system for the failures to pay telecom bills. Previous reports have noted a persistent failure to account for hundreds of computers and weapons, and a pattern of careless bookkeeping that spans a much wider area than the wiretapping program. The audit itself, a detailed, 87-page document, is too sensitive for public release, says the Justice Department, and only a seven-page summary is released. The American Civil Liberties Union calls on the FBI to release the entire document. ACLU counsel Michael German, himself a former FBI agent, questions the motives of the telecom firms, who in many instances have allowed the government to operate wiretaps on their systems without court warrants. “It sounds as though the telecoms believe it when the FBI says the warrant is in the mail, but not when they say the check is in the mail,” he says. [Washington Post, 1/11/2008]
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