Enabled by the Obama administration, America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is on the brink of rolling out a specialist electronic surveillance unit with the power to spy on Skype conversations and other Internet and wireless communications.
The Domestic Communications Assistance Center (DCAC) is a joint effort between the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, and Drug Enforcement Agency and is charged with developing the customised hardware necessary for new levels of digital reconnaissance.
Representing the technological nerve centre of the FBI’s “Going Dark” web surveillance drive, the new organisation is being bestowed with a wide-ranging mandate that covers everything from eavesdropping on live online conversations to creating more sophisticated wiretapping devices compatible with electronic devices.
To enable the DCAC to infiltrate the digital world more thoroughly and with greater efficiency, the federal government is pushing for a new law that would require social networks, e-mail providers, and instant messaging services to build in backdoors that allowed law enforcement agencies to dodge encryption.
Ultimately, this means the initiative has the blessing of the Oval Office, despite President Obama promising in his 2008 campaign to “strengthen privacy protections for the digital age.” In doing the exact opposite, he is running a political gambit with November’s show down with Mitt Romney in mind: whatever support he risks by alienating civil libertarians and parts of Silicon Valley he potentially recuperates tenfold by appearing tough on national security and appealing to the nation’s no nonsense heartland.
Internet providers and businesses are being encouraged to support the legislation which, in the extreme, would make it illegal for companies to offer an absolutely secure service. Of course, Congress may reject the law, but early indications and America’s track record on similar security issues would seem to suggest otherwise.
The manner in which the DCAC has been created is also at odds with Obama’s pledge to lead the “most transparent administration in history.”
A high level of secrecy has characterised the birth of the organisation, which has yet to even create a web page for itself. Digital civil liberties groups like San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are questioning why such a lack of transparency is necessary.
“We should know more about the program and what the FBI is doing – which carriers they’re working with, which carrier they’re having problems with. They’re doing the best they can to avoid being transparent,” said Jennifer Lynch (left), an attorney at the EFF said.
The House of Representatives could force the FBI to lift the shroud of mystery. On May 2nd, a committee instructed the bureau to provide a report on the new centre and the other agencies involved three months after the final legislation necessary to make the DCAC official is passed.
The FBI argues – somewhat unconvincingly – that the enterprise is necessary to keep pace with the rate of change and is merely a case of bringing its existing authority up to date in line with the demands of the constantly evolving digital era.
“We’re not talking about expanding authority. We’re talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority,” said Valerie Caproni, the bureau’s general counsel.
At present, U.S. law enforcement agents have a modest arsenal of techniques that enable them to invade the digital world.
The most popular method is for police to obtain the warrant necessary to invade an individual’s home or workplace, install covert keystroke-logging software, and record passphrases, with the FBI famously using the technique in its pursuit of mobster Nicodermo Scarfo. Another option is to send spyware to the subject of the investigation.
The most worrying aspect of this latest overture towards an Orwellian state is that the new technologies and devices being touted are unlikely to stay solely in the hands of the big boys for very long.
Though one the main justifications for wanting to snoop on the digital world is inevitably cited as national security – the usual anti-terror, war on drugs shtick U.S. government agencies trot out when critics allege the erosion of freedoms – law enforcement at state and local level are reported to be keen on the technologies as well.
In fact, a Justice Department funding request looking ahead to 2013 anticipates that the DCAC will help to “facilitate the sharing of solutions and know-how among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies,” and was one of the principle arguments used to justify the $54 million (£34.5m) budget the FBI’s web snooping programme has received.
This raises the unifying prospect of local plods intercepting conversations between high school students and planning arrests for relatively trivial offences like underage drinking – a far cry from a real life Carrie Mathison tracking down the next Bin Laden.
In the wake of the recent News International scandal, there also has to be a concern as to who else might enjoy high-end new digital surveillance hardware.
The creation of the DCAC and the tasks it being charged with raises fundamental questions about the extent to which America’s First Amendment – the right to freedom of speech – applies to the electronic landscape.
In the long run, the complex issue may find itself the subject of a legal battle, with the potential to land in the Supreme Court due to its constitutional nature.
Supporters of digital freedom have some cause for optimism in this light. The current legal precedent was established in 2000, when a federal appeals court ruled that encryption is protected by freedom of speech because computer source coding is an “expressive means for the exchange of information and ideas.”
The problem is global in scale. BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion repeatedly rebuffs threats by the Indian government to shut down its messaging service for refusing to allow monitoring, while in the U.K. there is ongoing discussion about what methods the police use to obtain their information.
As the world's self-appointed purveyor of liberty, all eyes are invariably on the U.S. in the digital freedom debate. The creation of the DCAC has created a new battle ground.