DCS-3000 is the FBI’s new Carnivore

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The FBI bit off some controversy in 2000 when it acknowledged it was using a custom packet sniffer called Carnivore to effect court-authorized surveillance of internet traffic.

Some network operators were uncomfortable with g-men barging in their colo to hang a black box off their network, while civil libertarians chaffed at the bureau’s legally adventuresome use of some of Carnivore’s features with perfunctory court notice instead of a  full-blown wiretap order.

The feds responded by giving the tool a less-ominous moniker, DCS-1000, and getting the law changed. They later put the tool out to pasture in  favor of commercial solutions.

Of course, the whole Carnivore controversy unfolded in more innocent times, before the NSA began allegedly installing equipment directly on internet backbones as part of the Bush administration’s extrajudicial domestic surveillance program. Today, a federal agency that still quaintly goes to a judge before spying on Americans is practically a candidate for an EFF Pioneer Award.

And so it is with interest but not outrage that we report on “DCS-3000,” a $10 million program that’s presumably three times as good as DCS-1000.

DCS-3000 differs from its predecessor in that it’s focused not on generic internet traffic, but on helping the FBI and others spy on text messaging and next-gen wireless features. A recent report by the Justice Department’s inspector general describes it this way:

The FBI developed the system as an interim solution to intercept personal communications services delivered via emerging digital technologies used by wireless carriers in advance of any CALEA solutions being deployed. Law enforcement continues to utilize this technology as carriers continue to introduce new features and services.

CALEA (the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) is the 1994 law that requires telecom companies to rig their networks for easy law enforcement tapping. The IG report (pdf) has some fascinating details on how that’s going. For example, some 80 to 90 percent of old-fashioned wireline phone switches are apparently not CALEA compliant, which means the feds still have to perform those taps the old fashioned way.

But every wireless switch in the country is CALEA ready, according to carriers, which is speeding things up for the police considerably. “For example, a New York law enforcement official noted that his agency can now initiate a wiretap on a wireless phone within a day.” Nice! I can’t get through my carrier’s customer service menu that fast.

Aiding the easy listening is a “dial-back” hack, in which phone company computers call up the law enforcement agency and pipe the customer’s conversations down the open line.

Over 80 percent of intercepts are now targeting wireless phones, though the fancy CALEA taps can cost as much as $2,600 for 30 days of spying, so you’d better be saying something pretty interesting. The FBI has reported some problems intercepting push-to-talk phones such as Nextel’s “Walkie-Talkie” service, and have on occasion been thwarted by VoIP and pre-paid cell phones, according to the report.

And where CALEA isn’t installed, the FBI is deploying another new surveillance tool called “Red Hook” to “collect voice and data calls and then process and display the intercepted information.” Six other FBI wiretap systems are redacted from the document.