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FBI Wants Telecom Companies To Install Surveillance Software - 9/11

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The Wall Street Journal Online

FBI Wants Telecom Companies To Install Surveillance Software

By Jess Bravin and Dennis K. Berman

November 21, 2001

WASHINGTON - The Federal Bureau of Investigation says the proliferation of telecommunications services is harming its ability to tap into criminal suspects' communications, and it wants phone companies to make changes in their networks to improve surveillance.

The demands to add software and equipment have roiled the industry, which estimates it will cost more than $1 billion to comply with the FBI requirements, said Albert Gidari, a telecommunications lawyer at Perkins Coie LLP in Seattle, who has represented wireless companies on surveillance issues. The demands, he said, are "mind-boggling."

Several industry officials said the FBI essentially wants direct access to voice communications, as the bureau now has with e-mail through the snooping technology known as Carnivore. An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the matter.

The FBI's request, under the 1994 Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, was in the works long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But industry representatives said the nation's newfound focus on security is emboldening law-enforcement agencies to interpret their authority more broadly. "After Sept. 11, they're pushing for anything and everything," said Terri Brooks, a Nokia Corp. manager involved in the project.

In a confidential 32-page document distributed to telecommunications companies earlier during the month, the FBI said "many new packet-based services and architectures have been developed which impede or even preclude law enforcement's full and proper execution" of its investigative powers. When communications are transmitted via packets, a message is broken into numerous pieces, each encoded so it can be transmitted separately -- sometimes over different routes -- and then reassembled at its destination.

The process makes it difficult to monitor communications. Complicating matters, there are many different ways to send voice signals via packet technology. Creating standards and technology for each of them will be tough, industry officials say. "The FBI has learned that it's really difficult to get everyone on the same page because the technology is changing all the time and customer requirements vary a great deal," said Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco advocacy group.

To remedy the problem, the FBI issued "a set of high-level needs ... considered necessary by law enforcement regardless of the service that is being offered." Those include 24-hour "real time" monitoring of communications, alerts when a communication is attempted and explanations why any communication fails to go through.

To make sure messages aren't missed, the FBI also said it needs a higher level of reliability than the current standard for the cellular market, where dropped calls are commonplace.

Meeting the FBI's requirements could take as long as two years, one executive said. With such time and expense looming, Gidari suspects the FBI really is angling for a Carnivore-like system for tapping voice calls. Carnivore allows the government to tap directly into the data stream for e-mails to sift out the information it wants.

Ed Hall, vice president for technology development at the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Standards, said the FBI already has the tool to do what it wants, "and it's Carnivore."

AT Wireless Services Inc., of Redmond, Wash., suggested as much in an Aug. 17 Federal Communications Commission filing. "The FBI has the technical capability to meet its surveillance needs" through Carnivore, the company said. The company asked why carriers should be forced to "modify their networks at considerable cost to provide a similar surveillance capability." A spokesman for AT Wireless declined to comment further.

Others, however, said the FBI demands were predictable and could be met using available software. Scott Coleman, a surveillance-product manager at SS8 Networks Inc. in San Jose, Calif., said: "There was nothing new or radically different than what's been talked about."

The FBI is relying on the 1994 law, which requires phone companies to modify networks to make it easier for government agents to conduct authorized surveillance. The law applies to "telecommunications carriers" but not "information services," such as AOL Time Warner Inc.'s America Online, and requires that privacy be maintained for other messages. The result has been legal wrangling over what types of communications fall under its provisions. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Earlier this month, the FBI summoned about 100 industry representatives to a closed-door meeting in Tucson, Ariz., to explain its technical requirements. Companies represented included Verizon Communications, Cisco Systems Inc., and Motorola Inc. as well as about 10 FBI officials.

One participant said FBI officials refused to answer most questions before the group, but would meet individually with companies to discuss technical matters. "There was a hint in the presentation that if somebody deployed a new technology and the FBI couldn't intercept it, the FBI would expect the service provider to stop providing the service" until tapping methods were available, this person said.

Although most technical standards in the U.S. are developed through open meetings among engineers, the FBI has insisted on an extraordinary level of secrecy that slows the process. One attendee at the Tucson meeting estimated it would take six months for the industry to agree on a standard and another 18 to 24 months to modify telecommunications networks.

Further Reading:

F.·.W.·. Magazine || 9/11: The Archive - The 'Lighter' Side of the New World Order?