Despite the pervasiveness of law enforcement surveillance of digital communication, the FBI still has a difficult time monitoring Gmail, Google Voice, and Dropbox in real time. But that may change soon, because the bureau says it has made gaining more powers to wiretap all forms of Internet conversation and cloud storage a “top priority” this year.
Last week, during a talk for the American Bar Association in Washington, D.C., FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann discussed some of the pressing surveillance and national security issues facing the bureau. He gave a few updates on the FBI’s efforts to address what it calls the “going dark” problem—how the rise in popularity of email and social networks has stifled its ability to monitor communications as they are being transmitted. It’s no secret that under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the feds can easily obtain archive copies of emails. When it comes to spying on emails or Gchat in real time, however, it’s a different story.
That’s because a 1994 surveillance law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act only allows the government to force Internet providers and phone companies to install surveillance equipment within their networks. But it doesn’t cover email, cloud services, or online chat providers like Skype. Weissmann said that the FBI wants the power to mandate real-time surveillance of everything from Dropbox and online games (“the chat feature in Scrabble”) to Gmail and Google Voice. “Those communications are being used for criminal conversations,” he said.
While it is true that CALEA can only be used to compel Internet and phone providers to build in surveillance capabilities into their networks, the feds do have some existing powers to request surveillance of other services. Authorities can use a “Title III” order under the “Wiretap Act” to ask email and online chat providers furnish the government with “technical assistance necessary to accomplish the interception.” However, the FBI claims this is not sufficient because mandating that providers help with “technical assistance” is not the same thing as forcing them to “effectuate” a wiretap. In 2011, then-FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni—Weissmann’s predecessor—stated that Title III orders did not provide the bureau with an "effective lever" to "encourage providers" to set up live surveillance quickly and efficiently. In other words, the FBI believes it doesn’t have enough power under current legislation to strong-arm companies into providing real-time wiretaps of communications.
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