Point, Click … Eavesdrop: How the FBI Wiretap Net Operates
By Ryan Singel
The FBI has quietly built a sophisticated, point-and-click surveillance system
that performs instant wiretaps on almost any communications device, according
to nearly a thousand pages of restricted documents newly released under the
Freedom of Information Act.
The surveillance system, called DCSNet, for Digital Collection System Network,
connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by traditional land-line
operators, internet-telephony providers and cellular companies. It is far more
intricately woven into the nation’s telecom infrastructure than observers suspected.
It’s a “comprehensive wiretap system that intercepts wire-line phones,
cellular phones, SMS and push-to-talk systems,” says Steven Bellovin, a
Columbia University computer science professor and longtime surveillance expert.
Snapshots of the FBI Spy Docs
DCSNet is a suite of software that collects, sifts and stores phone numbers,
phone calls and text messages. The system directly connects FBI wiretapping
outposts around the country to a far-reaching private communications network.
Many of the details of the system and its full capabilities were redacted from
the documents acquired by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but they show
that DCSNet includes at least three collection components, each running on Windows-based
The $10 million DCS-3000 client, also known as Red Hook, handles pen-registers
and trap-and-traces, a type of surveillance that collects signaling information
— primarily the numbers dialed from a telephone — but no communications content.
(Pen registers record outgoing calls; trap-and-traces record incoming calls.)
DCS-6000, known as Digital Storm, captures and collects the content of phone
calls and text messages for full wiretap orders.
A third, classified system, called DCS-5000, is used for wiretaps targeting
spies or terrorists.
What DCSNet Can Do
Together, the surveillance systems let FBI agents play back recordings even
as they are being captured (like TiVo), create master wiretap files, send digital
recordings to translators, track the rough location of targets in real time
using cell-tower information, and even stream intercepts outward to mobile surveillance
FBI wiretapping rooms in field offices and undercover locations around the
country are connected through a private, encrypted backbone that is separated
from the internet. Sprint runs it on the government’s behalf.
The network allows an FBI agent in New York, for example, to remotely set up
a wiretap on a cell phone based in Sacramento, California, and immediately learn
the phone’s location, then begin receiving conversations, text messages and
voicemail pass codes in New York. With a few keystrokes, the agent can route
the recordings to language specialists for translation.
The numbers dialed are automatically sent to FBI analysts trained to interpret
phone-call patterns, and are transferred nightly, by external storage devices,
to the bureau’s Telephone Application Database, where they’re subjected to a
type of data mining called link analysis.
FBI endpoints on DCSNet have swelled over the years, from 20 “central
monitoring plants” at the program’s inception, to 57 in 2005, according
to undated pages in the released documents. By 2002, those endpoints connected
to more than 350 switches.
Today, most carriers maintain their own central hub, called a “mediation
switch,” that’s networked to all the individual switches owned by that
carrier, according to the FBI. The FBI’s DCS software links to those mediation
switches over the internet, likely using an encrypted VPN. Some carriers run
the mediation switch themselves, while others pay companies like VeriSign to
handle the whole wiretapping process for them.
The numerical scope of DCSNet surveillance is still guarded. But we do know
that as telecoms have become more wiretap-friendly, the number of criminal wiretaps
alone has climbed from 1,150 in 1996 to 1,839 in 2006. That’s a 60 percent jump.
And in 2005, 92 percent of those criminal wiretaps targeted cell phones, according
to a report published last year.
These figures include both state and federal wiretaps, and do not include antiterrorism
wiretaps, which dramatically expanded after 9/11. They also don’t count the
DCS-3000’s collection of incoming and outgoing phone numbers dialed. Far more
common than full-blown wiretaps, this level of surveillance requires only that
investigators certify that the phone numbers are relevant to an investigation.
The Justice Department reports the number of pen registers to Congress annually,
but those numbers aren’t public. According to the last figures leaked to the
Electronic Privacy Information Center, judges signed 4,886 pen register orders
in 1998, along with 4,621 time extensions.
CALEA Switches Rules on Switches
The law that makes the FBI’s surveillance network possible had its genesis
in the Clinton administration. In the 1990s, the Justice Department began complaining
to Congress that digital technology, cellular phones and features like call
forwarding would make it difficult for investigators to continue to conduct
wiretaps. Congress responded by passing the Communications Assistance for Law
Enforcement Act, or CALEA, in 1994, mandating backdoors in U.S. telephone switches.
CALEA requires telecommunications companies to install only telephone-switching
equipment that meets detailed wiretapping standards. Prior to CALEA, the FBI
would get a court order for a wiretap and present it to a phone company, which
would then create a physical tap of the phone system.
With new CALEA-compliant digital switches, the FBI now logs directly into the
telecom’s network. Once a court order has been sent to a carrier and the carrier
turns on the wiretap, the communications data on a surveillance target streams
into the FBI’s computers in real time.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation requested documents on the system under
the Freedom of Information Act, and successfully sued the Justice Department
in October 2006.
In May, a federal judge ordered the FBI to provide relevant documents to the
EFF every month until it has satisfied the FOIA request.
“So little has been known up until now about how DCS works,” says
EFF attorney Marcia Hofmann. “This is why it’s so important for FOIA requesters
to file lawsuits for information they really want.”
Special Agent Anthony DiClemente, chief of the Data Acquisition and Intercept
Section of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division, said the DCS was originally
intended in 1997 to be a temporary solution, but has grown into a full-featured
CALEA-collection software suite.
“CALEA revolutionizes how law enforcement gets intercept information,”
DiClemente told Wired News. “Before CALEA, it was a rudimentary system
that mimicked Ma Bell.”
Privacy groups and security experts have protested CALEA design mandates from
the start, but that didn’t stop federal regulators from recently expanding the
law’s reach to force broadband internet service providers and some voice-over-internet
companies, such as Vonage, to similarly retrofit their networks for government
Meanwhile, the FBI’s efforts to keep up with the current communications explosion
is never-ending, according to DiClemente.
The released documents suggest that the FBI’s wiretapping engineers are struggling
with peer-to-peer telephony provider Skype, which offers no central location
to wiretap, and with innovations like caller-ID spoofing and phone-number portability.
But DCSNet seems to have kept pace with at least some new technologies, such
as cell-phone push-to-talk features and most VOIP internet telephony.
“It is fair to say we can do push-to-talk,” DiClemente says. “All
of the carriers are living up to their responsibilities under CALEA.”
Matt Blaze, a security researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who helped
assess the FBI’s now-retired Carnivore internet-wiretapping application in 2000,
was surprised to see that DCSNet seems equipped to handle such modern communications
tools. The FBI has been complaining for years that it couldn’t tap these services.
The redacted documentation left Blaze with many questions, however. In particular,
he said it’s unclear what role the carriers have in opening up a tap, and how
that process is secured.
“The real question is the switch architecture on cell networks,”
said Blaze. “What’s the carrier side look like?”
Randy Cadenhead, the privacy counsel for Cox Communications, which offers VOIP
phone service and internet access, says the FBI has no independent access to
his company’s switches.
“Nothing ever gets connected or disconnected until I say so, based upon
a court order in our hands,” Cadenhead says. “We run the interception
process off of my desk, and we track them coming in. We give instructions to
relevant field people who allow for interconnection and to make verbal connections
with technical representatives at the FBI.”
The nation’s largest cell-phone providers — whose customers are targeted in
the majority of wiretaps — were less forthcoming. AT&T politely declined
to comment, while Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon simply ignored requests for comment.
Agent DiClemente, however, seconded Cadenhead’s description.
“The carriers have complete control. That’s consistent with CALEA,”
DiClemente said. “The carriers have legal teams to read the order, and
they have procedures in place to review the court orders, and they also verify
the information and that the target is one of their subscribers.”
Despite its ease of use, the new technology is proving more expensive than
a traditional wiretap. Telecoms charge the government an average of $2,200 for
a 30-day CALEA wiretap, while a traditional intercept costs only $250, according
to the Justice Department inspector general. A federal wiretap order in 2006
cost taxpayers $67,000 on average, according to the most recent U.S. Court wiretap
What’s more, under CALEA, the government had to pay to make pre-1995 phone
switches wiretap-friendly. The FBI has spent almost $500 million on that effort,
but many traditional wire-line switches still aren’t compliant.
Processing all the phone calls sucked in by DCSNet is also costly. At the backend
of the data collection, the conversations and phone numbers are transferred
to the FBI’s Electronic Surveillance Data Management System, an Oracle SQL database
that’s seen a 62 percent growth in wiretap volume over the last three years
— and more than 3,000 percent growth in digital files like e-mail. Through
2007, the FBI has spent $39 million on the system, which indexes and analyzes
data for agents, translators and intelligence analysts.
To security experts, though, the biggest concern over DCSNet isn’t the cost:
It’s the possibility that push-button wiretapping opens new security holes in
the telecommunications network.
More than 100 government officials in Greece learned in 2005 that their cell
phones had been bugged, after an unknown hacker exploited CALEA-like functionality
in wireless-carrier Vodafone’s network. The infiltrator used the switches’ wiretap-management
software to send copies of officials’ phone calls and text messages to other
phones, while simultaneously hiding the taps from auditing software.
The FBI’s DiClemente says DCSNet has never suffered a similar breach, so far
as he knows.
“I know of no issue of compromise, internal or external,” DiClemente
says. He says the system’s security is more than adequate, in part because the
wiretaps still “require the assistance of a provider.” The FBI also
uses physical-security measures to control access to DCSNet end points, and
has erected firewalls and other measures to render them “sufficiently isolated,”
according to DiClemente.
But the documents show that an internal 2003 audit uncovered numerous security
vulnerabilities in DCSNet — many of which mirror problems unearthed in the
bureau’s Carnivore application years earlier.
In particular, the DCS-3000 machines lacked adequate logging, had insufficient
password management, were missing antivirus software, allowed unlimited numbers
of incorrect passwords without locking the machine, and used shared logins rather
than individual accounts.
The system also required that DCS-3000’s user accounts have administrative
privileges in Windows, which would allow a hacker who got into the machine to
gain complete control.
Columbia’s Bellovin says the flaws are appalling and show that the FBI fails
to appreciate the risk from insiders.
“The underlying problem isn’t so much the weaknesses here, as the FBI
attitude towards security,” he says. The FBI assumes “the threat is
from the outside, not the inside,” he adds, and it believes that “to
the extent that inside threats exist, they can be controlled by process rather
Bellovin says any wiretap system faces a slew of risks, such as surveillance
targets discovering a tap, or an outsider or corrupt insider setting up unauthorized
taps. Moreover, the architectural changes to accommodate easy surveillance on
phone switches and the internet can introduce new security and privacy holes.
“Any time something is tappable there is a risk,” Bellovin says.
“I’m not saying, ‘Don’t do wiretaps,’ but when you start designing a system
to be wiretappable, you start to create a new vulnerability. A wiretap is, by
definition, a vulnerability from the point of the third party. The question
is, can you control it?”
Source URL: http://www.wired.com/politics/security/news/2007/08/wiretap?currentPage=all