The FBI’s Vision for Domestic Electronic Surveillance

CNET correspondent Declan McCullagh discusses his May 2012 article on the FBI’s Domestic Communications Assistance Center.

Public Intelligence

Last month, Cryptome quietly posted a 2007 draft of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s vision statement for the Domestic Communications Assistance Center (DCAC). The document, which has received no media attention, offers the most in depth view yet of the DCAC and its surveillance functions. In May, CNET correspondent Declan McCullagh disclosed the existence of the DCAC, which he described as having a mandate “covering everything from trying to intercept and decode Skype conversations to building custom wiretap hardware or analyzing the gigabytes of data that a wireless provider or social network might turn over in response to a court order.” The vision statement obtained by Cryptome describes the general functions and organization of the DCAC as well as the FBI’s national electronic surveillance (ELSUR) strategy.

Under the plan, DCAC will coordinate, integrate, and distribute ELSUR solutions among domestic law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and intelligence community agencies (ICAs), acting as a centralized hub for obtaining and processing intercepted communications. According to the FBI, ELSUR capabilities are not “investigation-specific” and are “used in nearly every significant intelligence, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, criminal, and cyber crime investigation.” The increasing “complexity and variety” of communications technologies in recent years has created difficulties for the FBI in maintaining their ELSUR capabilities. Though the FBI “spear-headed” the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which substantially enhanced law enforcement’s ability to conduct ELSUR, changes to the current system are needed to maintain operational effectiveness. The FBI’s vision statement argues that “with the advent of digitally-based, switch-centric, advanced telecommunication services and features, the efficacy of agency-based ‘wiretapping’ diminished by the day” and as “computer-based ‘electronic communications’ continue to grow and surpass voice communications in volume, especially with the emergence and use of broadband technology, they far exceed voice communications in ELSUR complexity.”

The FBI’s Domestic Electronic Surveillance Strategy

To combat these “emerging challenges” in maintaining ELSUR capabilities, the FBI created a five-pronged national strategy aimed at improving coordination between law enforcement and private industry as well as updating legal provisions to make sharing easier. The DCAC is a central component of the FBI’s larger national ELSUR strategy, weaving through each of its five focus areas summarized below:

1. Updating Federal ELSUR assistance mandates (e.g., updating CALEA):The FBI wants to revise CALEA to clarify that VoIP and broadband access providers are covered by CALEA, including the “lawful authority of LEAs/ ICAs to fully receive and appropriately process a subject’s communications traffic, including IP/packet-based communications.”

2. Revising and enhancing certain Federal statutory and administrative ELSUR-related authorities: “Sensitive law enforcement and proprietary service provider ELSUR techniques and information” should be protected and restrictions on the FBI’s ability to “loan ELSUR equipment and provide technical assistance, training, etc. to state and local LEAs” should be removed.

3. Enhancing LEA and ICA ELSUR coordination: The DCAC will serve as a centralized location for coordinating research and development as well as operating networks “for the delivery of ELSUR intercept traffic, information-sharing, and technical support.”

4. Enhancing ELSUR cooperation between Industry and LEAs/ICAs: The expanding complexity of communications technologies requires that “greater and broader industry liaison be pursued, especially with IP-based communications service providers and manufacturers and emerging trusted third-party ELSUR solution providers.” The DCAC will play a significant role in this coordinating capacity as without “such centralized FBI-DCAC industry liaison efforts, fragmented and/or parochial approaches that otherwise might be pursued by individual Federal, state, and local agencies could unwittingly impair industry relations and their technical assistance to the detriment of the strategic goals of ICAs and LEAs.”

5. Increasing LEA and ICA ELSUR technical and financial resources: The DCAC will serve as a distribution point for financial assistance in maintaining ELSUR capabilities, providing “centralized and coordinated utilization of ELSUR funds.”

These areas of focus are designed to increase the FBI’s technical capabilities for ELSUR and provide a centralized system for obtaining and delivering intercepted communications, something the “communications industry itself will welcome.” The communications industry, according to the FBI’s vision, “much prefers government agencies to act in unity” and “identify a single set of ELSUR requirements.”

The central hub of this ELSUR strategy is the DCAC’s Coordinating Office which will lead a network of “Regional Support Centers” designed to “facilitate the rapid distribution of DCAC ELSUR capabilities and solutions.” These regional centers will “operate as the conduit through which strategic ELSUR services” can be distributed to ICAs and LEAs. To assist in this process, “the DCAC will establish and maintain a cost-effective transport mechanism to deliver ELSUR traffic from the intercept access points (IAPs) of communications providers (telephone companies, ISPs, broadband access and VoIP providers, etc.)” to one of the DCAC’s regional centers. The regional center will then process the traffic and provide it to “end-user agencies that will be responsible for administering, monitoring, minimizing, recording, and storing the ELSUR product.” The DCAC “will not have any direct operational role or responsibility in the actual criminal or intelligence investigations being conducted by any participating agencies using DCAC ELSUR technical support.”

The DCAC’s Coordinating Office will lead and oversee larger aspects of industry collaboration and research and development including “outreach and liaison with entities in the communications industry and standards bodies.” Centralized funding in the form of “establishing a special-purpose multi-year account” for the DCAC’s Coordinating Office will also allow the FBI to “continue to carry out and significantly expand upon its vitally important ELSUR R&D and other ELSUR-related efforts” that are designed to benefit the entire domestic governmental community.

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