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FBI's 'Digital Storm' Raises Privacy Concerns
By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2000; Page A01
In response to growing concerns about terrorism, hackers and other high-tech criminals, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is planning a series of sophisticated computer systems that would sharply increase agents' ability to gather and analyze information.
The FBI is seeking more than $75 million in budget appropriations to continue a massive information technology expansion, which includes a system dubbed "Digital Storm" that eases the court-sanctioned collection and electronic sifting of traffic on telephones and cellular phones.
Another proposed system would create "the foundation for an up-to-date, flexible digital collection infrastructure" for wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A third initiative would develop an "enterprise database" that would enable agents to analyze huge amounts of data and share them via a secure World Wide Web-style network. The bureau has also formed a privacy council to review the use of data and protect against unwarranted intrusions into innocent Americans' lives.
FBI officials said the bureau's information technology systems are aging and need to be updated to keep pace with criminal activities, both on the Internet and offline.
"Our crimes that we're investigating today have a much more national and global scale," said Deputy Assistant Director Edward Allen. "And it's so much faster-paced. It becomes much more critical that we communicate more comprehensively."
The proposals follow a series of bureau initiatives in recent years to gain more authority to conduct wiretaps, crack encrypted documents and subpoena computer-related information. FBI officials believe that the new data surveillance capability is crucial to the bureau's strategic goal of deterring major criminal acts through surveillance and intelligence-gathering.
"The [information technology] demanded of this plan presently does not exist within the FBI, but is at the core of activities to be implemented," the budget documents state.
But civil liberties activists, legislators and legal specialists are alarmed that the bureau's proposals could erode constitutional protections that limit government searches, with almost no discussion to date about the implications on Capitol Hill.
The initiatives apparently would not require an expansion of FBI powers under existing law. But critics said the linking of scattered sources of information would lead to a huge increase in data collection and analysis.
In its budget documents, for example, the FBI estimates that technological advances would so improve the ability to conduct wiretaps that the number of approved taps would grow by 300 percent over the next decade. Allen played down that figure, saying it was the result of a "poor analysis" and probably would be much lower.
The agency would also continue expanding its use of commercial databases containing credit information, real estate records, vehicle registrations and a plethora of other personal details.
The budget says "the explosion and availability of open source information, and the number of information bases and data sources that can and should be searched becomes formidable."
"They're not merely talking about making more efficient use of information they already have," said James Dempsey, senior staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group in the District. "They're talking about casting a wider net and sweeping in vastly more information."
Others, such as Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the National Security Agency, say the FBI already has tremendous power and little oversight.
"They're acting within the law, but it's fair to be nervous about that," said Baker, a partner at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson and a member of a privacy advisory board of the Federal Trade Commission. "An awful lot of information can be gathered with only a modest amount of justification."
Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) said the FBI has focused so tightly on preventing terrorist activity that it has virtually ignored the implications of its plans, at least publicly. "They're saying, 'We need to do whatever it takes,' " Barr said.
Barr will raise his concerns at a hearing today of the Constitution subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. The subcommittee will explore the adequacy of privacy protections under current laws.
"They reason we're focusing on this now . . . because of the government's ability to gather, store and manipulate massive amounts of data," Barr said.
The FBI's Allen acknowledged that the bureau's ability to manage that data will soar with the new technology. But he said bureau employees will have only restricted access to the databases, and that there already are legal restraints on wiretaps and other surveillance. Agents seeking a wiretap, for instance, will still have to receive court approval and then make regular reports to the judge about the progress of the case.
Allen also said that the FBI will include software that tracks who accesses files in order to create an audit trail.
The bureau is seeking $15 million for Digital Storm, a digital surveillance system that helps agents monitor telephone calls and analyze computerized recordings under federal Title III wiretap authority. Other law enforcement agencies use similar systems. A similar program for monitoring under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would cost $10 million next year.
Information from Digital Storm and the FISA system would be fed into new in-house databases known as Casa De Web. It would enable agents and other authorities to use Web browsers to instantly upload the results of surveillance or other evidence. It also would archive "audio, data, and reports produced on these collection systems," the budget states.
"It facilitates the sharing of electronic surveillance evidentiary data . . . and intelligence . . . between FBI field offices," the budget had said in the $10 million request for Casa De Web.
The bureau also is asking Congress for $41 million for an Information Sharing Initiative. That program, begun last year, calls for the creation of a giant "enterprise database" and an array of other technological improvements that would give the bureau "a robust intelligence capability."
Carolyn Morris, head of the bureau's information resources division, noted that the "enterprise database" essentially a data warehouse would contain the same information the bureau already collects. "A lot of people think it's going to be something entirely new," she said. "It isn't."
But the database would give analysts the unprecedented ability to conduct "data mining" on vast mountains of digital records for patterns or clues now buried in paper files or scattered in unlinked FBI computers.
"You've got to have an electronic repository for everything you collect . . . which means you can mine it, look for links," Morris said.
At the same time, Morris said, the bureau is sensitive to Americans' privacy concerns. Several months ago, the bureau created a privacy council led by Patrick Kelley, deputy general counsel and the senior privacy officer. Among other things, the council will develop privacy rules for databases with 10,000 or more records.
"Our goal is to ensure that there are no unwarranted invasions of personal privacy and to balance the interests" of investigators and individual citizens.
In a speech to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in February, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh warned of a coming wave of Internet crime and Web-based terrorism.
"I am confident that once the scope of the problem is clear, we can work together to develop the capabilities to meet the computer crime problem, in all its facets, head on," Freeh said to the subcommittee for the departments of Commerce, Justice, State and the judiciary. "Our economy and public safety depend on it."
Dempsey, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said federal agents need to be as technologically savvy as criminals and terrorists. But he said limits are needed to protect innocent people.
"As we rush forward into this digital storm, we need to consider the rules by which the government uses these techniques to collect information about Americans," he said.
) 2000 The Washington Post Company
-- (email@example.com), April 06, 2000
"They're acting within the law, but it's fair to be nervous about that,"
Uh-yeah. Is this not the understatement of the week? I am not a conspiracy theorist, but this does make me uncomfortable. And what the heck is "casa de Web? Is this not a stupid name??
Really, can we say that the FBI always acts within the law?? Geeze, when those would would steal my privacy make bold statements about it I definately get worried.
Did ya fill out your census yet??
-- FutureShock (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 06, 2000.
It makes me jittery that the same agency that was proven to have falsified evidence in the Randy Weaver case and almost certainly committed perjury in the Waco civil suit has these capabilities. My regard for the FBI is very low. I certainly don't think they are trustworthy any longer. I have reletives who worked for the agency who are much older than me. They say it wasn't always so.
And then there's those 900 plus confidential back ground checks...
Watch six and keep your...
-- eyes_open (email@example.com), April 06, 2000.