Should The FBI Be Able To Monitor Online Communications In Real TIme?

    March 28, 2013

As the current ECPA stands, law enforcement has the ability to obtain emails without a warrant. There are some laws currently making their way through Congress to change this, but law enforcement agencies obviously like things as they are. In fact, one agency in particular thinks it needs even more power to spy on your private communications.

Slate reports that FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann revealed during a talk at the American Bar Association last week that his agency is pushing for the ability to spy on communications in real time. In other words, the FBI wants to install the Internet equivalent of wiretaps on all major email and online chat services, including in-game chats on Facebook, etc, to monitor communications in real time.

Do you think the FBI should be given new spying powers? Let us know in the comments.

Why does the FBI need this new power when it can already obtain emails without a warrant? It’s all about a 1994 surveillance law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA. The law in its current state allows the FBI and other government agencies to install monitoring equipment on networks run by ISPs and phone companies.

The system used by the FBI is called DCSNet, or Digital Collection System Network. In a report from 2007, Wired dug through documents related to the system to find that the FBI has dramatically increased its online wiretapping operations since 2004. In fact, the numbers show that the FBI increased its wiretapping operations by 62 percent from 2004 to 2007, while the collection of emails grew over 3,000 percent in the same time period.

The last record of DCSNet activity came from 2007 so we can assume that the FBI has upped the ante since then in terms of data collection. All of which begs the question – why does the FBI need new spy powers when it can already siphon off all of our data anyway? If you ask the FBI, it’s quite simple really. The bureau wants real-time monitoring, and it wants it bad.

Weismann says that his ideal world would feature an FBI that would be able to monitor services like Dropbox, Facebook, in-game chats, Gmail, Google Voice and others in real time. This can’t be done under current law as the FBI must essentially acquire permission, or as the law calls it “technical assistance,” under Title III of the Wiretap Act.

The FBI thinks that Title III is so out of vogue, and doesn’t reflect the necessities of modern law enforcement. Slate points out that Weismann’s predecessor, Valerie Caponi, was harping on this back in 2011 when she said that Title III needs to give the bureau the power to essentially force service providers to cooperate with any real-time monitoring requests.

What’s worrisome is that the FBI already has these powers, but it wants more. A Google spokesperson confirmed with Slate that Gmail can’t be intercepted by the CALEA, but a request under the Wiretap Act may do the trick. The thing is – the Wiretap Act, even if Title III were to be reformed, would require the FBI to approach Google and only install wiretapping tools on the necessary accounts.

Under a reformed CALEA, the FBI could essentially watch every piece of email flowing in and out of Gmail without any kind of oversight. It would lead to overly broad surveillance of all communications in the hopes that maybe just one of the emails being sent contains something relevant to a criminal investigation.

Do you think a reformed CALEA could potentially be abused? Would you be concerned for your privacy? Let us know in the comments.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the FBI has wanted to expand its powers in recent memory. In December of last year, law enforcement, including the FBI, passed on a proposal to the Senate that would require wireless carriers to retain all text messages for two years. From there, these text messages could be perused through at their leisure with the sender or receiver of said messages being none the wiser.

Beyond just texting, mobile devices have become a primary target of law enforcement as it attempts to remove any shred of privacy contained in such devices. There are efforts on the state and national levels to require warrants before obtaining this information, but its unlikely to go through. Law enforcement does a good job of spooking congressmen into thinking that the bad guys will win unless every civil liberty enshrined in the Constitution become nothing but pretty words.

All of this is likely to come to a head this year as Weismann says that CALEA reform is a priority for 2013. You can expect to see these other attempts at broadening the powers granted to the FBI and other law enforcement groups to come up as well in these talks.

There is, however, one little sliver of hope. Weismann admits that talk of any new powers should be brought before public debate. By that, we can only hope he means the public at large instead of what public debate usually means in Washington – a couple of congressman that have no idea what they’re doing.

Would you be in favor of the FBI obtaining new surveillance powers? Or do you think it already has enough power? Let us know in the comments.