The FBI and Wiretaps

To aid their Wall Street investigations, the FBI used DCSNet, their massive surveillance system.

Prosecutors are using the FBI’s massive surveillance system, DCSNet, which stands for Digital Collection System Network. According to Wired magazine, this system connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by traditional land-line operators, internet-telephony providers and cellular companies. It can be used to instantly wiretap almost any communications device in the U.S.—wireless or tethered. In other words, you and I have no privacy. The government can listen in on any call made in the continental U.S. (This is all well and good if you trust every government employee. But what if an attorney general running for higher office will do anything to finger a high-profile target? Or what if a prosecutor has a personal grudge he’d like to fulfill? It seems to me it would be easy for this power to fall into the wrong hands.)

Posted on November 2, 2009 at 8:57 AM33 Comments


Milan November 2, 2009 9:18 AM

Does the NSA have an independent system that does the same thing? If so, it seems like a lot of wasteful duplication (even if you are indifferent to the privacy and legal implications of this sort of wholesale surveillance).

Carlo Graziani November 2, 2009 9:33 AM

It’s slightly humorous that the Wall Street Journal starts to get nervous about our incipient surveillance society only when Titans of Finance start to go under the Fed’s microscope.

The real issue, which the article completely misses, is not the existence of DCSNet, but rather its comically inadequate judicial oversight.

There’s no preventing the creation of such a system, and there wouldn’t be much reason to fear it, if the Feds hadn’t learned the neat trick of scaring Congress and the Judiciary into believing in ticking time bombs that relieve the Feds of the responsibility for justifying each search by “classical” wiretap standards.

I admit to having nurtured illusions that the Obama administration would bring a civil rights perspective to the table, balancing the surveillance needs of the securocracy with the liberty requirements of civil society. That balance got very badly and dangerously broken in 2001, and needs desperately to be restored.

Unfortunately, Obama seems to be rather unsure of himself on national security matters, and is unwilling to meaningfully challenge a room full of spooks and policemen who tell him that they need the draconian powers that they grabbed during the Bush administration. Even more unfortunately, he’s the only person in government with the institutional responsibility to guarantee that civil rights and security are in the right balance, and he’d rather not take the political risk of pushing back against the securocrats.

Depressing, really. Although it is darkly ironic that all the black-helicopter-spotting nutcases are focused on the government taking away their guns, and think the government taking over their phones to fight terrorists is great. They’re in for a surprise one of these days.

uk visa November 2, 2009 9:39 AM

Do you think we’ll look back in a few years at ‘the days when we sent unencrypted emails to friends and colleagues’ as the halcyon days of digital?

bethan November 2, 2009 9:42 AM

@Carlos – I agree on all points.

The lack of oversight and accountability imposed on the FBI, the increase in fusion centers, and Obama’s lack of decisive action to correct these issues is all outrageous.

Albatross November 2, 2009 9:46 AM

“Incipient surveillance society”? There’s nothing incipient about it. We’re classified as a surveillance society by the European Union and have been for years. We’re a surveillance society, and also the biggest police state that has ever existed, with the largest per capita prison population in history.

Trichinosis USA November 2, 2009 10:16 AM

I presented the possibility of these draconian surveillance systems being used for completely unpoliced insider trading right after the Patriot Act became law. For every Wall Street criminal they claim to catch there are 9 who got away. Listen in on people on Wall Street who are doing insider trading, do the same thing they do, line your pockets and there’s no way to prove anything because you’re supposed to be the one enforcing the law. It’s the perfect crime.

For crying out loud, people. Madoff was running his Ponzi scheme for decades. Do you really believe the SEC or the Feds didn’t figure out what he was doing over all that time? If so, I have a bridge for sale.

Brandioch Conner November 2, 2009 10:33 AM

I have to agree with Carlos and Trichinosis.

So far, these systems do not seem to have caught ANY terrorists.

Yet they are easily abused by the people in charge of them.

Anton Shahu November 2, 2009 10:46 AM

@Carlo Graziani:

It is not WSJ (Wall Street Journal) but rather a significantly smaller and different publication.

BF Skinner November 2, 2009 10:49 AM


hmmm too many syllableshow ’bout SECorats or just SECrats instead?

@Tim “hard criminals will start using”
Nope. They been using ’em. These wall street types don’t think of themselves as criminals (Except maybe Bernie)

Clive Robinson November 2, 2009 11:24 AM

People appear to have forgoton the head of the French “secret service” talking on CNN about state spying on forign industry as being “more cost effective than R&D”.

It is also not unkown that certain “favourd organisations” in the US and UK where given information “no questions asked” by their respective governments. Not just during bidding but all stages of product/service development.

As has been noted when the mechanism exists to monitor and there is no proper oversight then it takes a level of integraty that has not been seen for many years.

Oh and anybody else remember what the first Head of the FBI used to do?

“Hover up dirt and spin into the bag where it became gold”.

JKB November 2, 2009 11:26 AM

I’m not sure I understand the writer’s breathless worries about unethical uses. This is technology that the government is willing to reveal and have examined in open court, i.e., it isn’t the cutting edge which is still classified. An unethical use of this known system is likely to be challenged in court. The misuse of a classified system has no independent review since it doesn’t “officially” exist and won’t be used to come at you in a public manner.

This technology exists, freedom from surveillance exists only at the government’s discretion. The only outside limits are the use of the technology to develop evidence in prosecutions and suits open court in a manner acceptable to the Judiciary.

Matt from CT November 2, 2009 11:51 AM

I admit to having nurtured illusions that
the Obama administration would bring a
civil rights perspective to the table,
balancing the surveillance needs of the
securocracy with the liberty
requirements of civil society. That
balance got very badly and dangerously
broken in 2001, and needs desperately
to be restored.

On what basis?

The point man for beating up the Bush adminsitration over illegal wiretaps was Sen. Patrick Leahy.

The same Senator who was the lead sponsor of CALEA which paid to retrofit the wiretap infrastructure into digital switches in the 1990s and mandated it be built into all future purchases by private industry.

No CALEA, no DCSnet, no broughaha about it’s misuse.

No administration will voluntarily give up these powers unless held to account by Congress, and no Congress will hold an administration responsible or restrict their ability unless held to account by the voters.

Paul Renault November 2, 2009 11:58 AM

Carlo et al, Dang! I came here to say the same thing, but also to add:

So, does anyone else suspect that if the NSA’s warrant-less wiretapping had been targeted at rich (read: “important”) people, Congress might not have retroactively granted immunity from prosecution to the phone companies.

RH November 2, 2009 1:11 PM

“The system is pervasive and hard to circumvent. Hedge fund managers have been quoted saying they will use less phone and email communication…”

I’m no scholar on the topic, but I remember in the mob movies, the mob always relied on person to person communication, always with a third member to do the introductions.

If so, this leads to some interesting strategies. If the opposition is forced to rely on slow person-to-person communication, they are slower to respond to threats. I know this technique was used in the Gulf War, militarily. They don’t need to even intercept anything, simply prevent the enemy from talking.

screaming November 2, 2009 2:28 PM


You’re telling me that the genius banksters –who wrecked the economy– don’t know how to encrypt their email ???!!11!?!

Brandioch Conner November 2, 2009 2:40 PM

“If the opposition is forced to rely on slow person-to-person communication, they are slower to respond to threats. I know this technique was used in the Gulf War, militarily. They don’t need to even intercept anything, simply prevent the enemy from talking.”

Are these people “the opposition”?

EdT. November 2, 2009 2:59 PM

What’s interesting is that the bill that became USA-PATRIOT was allegedly written by “professionals” at the DoJ over 20 years earlier, and held until “the time was right” (9/12) to get it passed.


bob November 2, 2009 3:11 PM

Even if government personnel are as pure as the driven snow (unlikely if they have reached any level at all, since the system selects for the opposite) when issued these powers; that very power will corrupt them absolutely; they will no longer be trustworthy once exposed to it…

@Carlo, et al: I suspect that anybody worried about black helicopters (well, other than pilots; seems to have been a rash of suicidal helicopters lately) ALREADY assumes his/her phones are tapped.

@JKB: If they snapped you up in a “sting” and told you you could plea-bargain for probation instead of facing 25 years thru death penalty for a trumped up charge which your attorney told you you could not beat – it would not matter they might not be able to use the info. And that assumes they didnt simply disappear you to Gitmo where you dont even GET an attorney…

Clive Robinson November 2, 2009 4:41 PM

@ screaming,

“You’re telling me that the genius banksters — don’t know how to encrypt their email ?”

Not being funny but I doubt that most “geniuses” even those who design and attack crypto know how to do it properly in a complex environment.

As Bruce has noted on a number of occasions “the crypto system is only as strong as the weakest link”.

The problem is that we don’t actually know what the weakest link is in any given system…

We do know that public key systems are fraught with difficulties, and that it is possible to fritz key generation so that it is weak against a hidden secret (see Adam Young and Moti Yung papers and book).

Further we have no real idear how to do key managment in a reliable non heirachical way. And the problem with heirachical systems like pryamids is the stone above you (all the way to the “cap stone” at the top) is the point at which the rot can get in to you and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

Then there is the generation of cryptograpicaly secure “entropy” for nonces and keys. Every “physical entropy system” you look at has defects that need to be eliminated. Do you know if you have eliminated them all from which ever system you are using?

Do you know why hashing the output of your entropy source is just the “smoke and mirrors” of using “magic pixie dust”?

Then there are “known plain text” attacks due to standard file formats and incorrect cipher modes.

And sitting quietly on the “players bench” is the ringer which the punters have no idea about, Side Channels and Time based attacks.

The FBI may or may not be “babes in the wood” but the NSA are very unlikley to be. They have the resources and experiance which we outsiders can only dream about.

Then there is basic message, comms and key security. One tiny mistake here can leave your security wide open without your knowledge.

I have seen crypto trained “yeomen of signals” who should know better drop the key register state onto the red channel when under preasure and also wipe it to a default mode. I’ve seen telegraphers put green channel tapes on red channels and all sorts of other security no no’s.

A good “signals clerk” is usually the opposit of a genius, they are usualy “savant” in nature and follow the rules and procedures each and every time wihout fail.

Arno November 2, 2009 8:36 PM

@Clive Robinson:

A lot of valid points. In addition, doing crypto right does take experience and knowledge, things that Geniusses just need to aquire like everybody else.

However the NSA is very much different from the FBI in that they have to protect their sources. This means they cannot flush everything they intercept out there. They need to be careful not to alert people to what they can do, because otherwise said people would become more careful and the information source would dry up.

A question: What is a “red channel”, and what are “channel tapes”?

PackagedBlue November 2, 2009 11:07 PM

Instead of the old saying, “more beef,” now we get, “more backdoors.”

Oh well, these are trying times.

TruePath November 3, 2009 12:31 AM

The hand wringing about malicious politicians and vengeful prosecutors strikes me as a classic case of focusing on low risk threats because they seem more ominous and scary than the higher risk threats we live with daily.

I mean given the idea that someone might just sneak in and listen in on your conversations is totally absurd. The only way a politician or prosecutor are reasonably going to use this system against you is by convincing the other relevant actors (judges, attorney generals or whatever) to let them. But if they can obtain warrants and investigatory reasources to use against you and want to screw you over they would be better off simply doing it the old fashioned way with regular search warrants.

I mean the fact that the government can just show up, search through your belongings and cart off your computer and keep your possessions for a substantial length of time with only the signature of a random judge is a much bigger threat.

TruePath November 3, 2009 12:35 AM

This isn’t to say that widespread legally valid monitoring approved (or at least not hated enough) by the voters doesn’t pose any dangers. It’s just that our concerns should be about the general impact of surveillance based law enforcement on our freedoms and the chilling effect that merely worrying about surveilance might have. Not on some crazy concern about a rogue official turning it against you.

Clive Robinson November 3, 2009 3:56 AM

@ Arno,

Yup the NSA does not have to say anything, nor for that matter do the FBI. The spy novel “methods and sources” apply equaly as well to the FBI. Judges have a history of being very compliant with official requests in these areas, with the exceptional judge making the head lines for saying no and a trial ending because of it.

There used to be the notion of “the right to face your accusers” due to historical corrections to the justice system due to past abuses by those representing “lawful authority” in it’s many forms. It appears we are sliding backwards into a “medi-evil” world of Inquisitions, torture and strawmen, how long before “witch hunts” become fasionable again?

The cold war may be over but the reds under the beds mentality is alive and well in officialdom as it is a good way of getting resources to build you personal fiefdom. All we appear to have done is swap Kings, Dukes and robber Barons for presidents, burocrats and global conglomerates, oh and the “court jesters” well we appear to elect them these days to represent us…

With regards “tapes” think punched paper tapes that burn very easily. Untill very recently Diplomatic and high end military comms used them for many many reasons as they where known technology with proven performance.

With regards to channels and their colour names, there is the interesting problem that most words used in common parlance have significant issues in security in that they can mean the opposit of what you think, the classic one being “trust” as in “trusted systems”.

For instance you have “secure areas” that have messages etc in “plaintext”, these might be encrypted there but still considered as “insecure” and need further encryption in another area. The original ider was that the colour designation would tell those handeling a tape how it was to be treated.

Unfortunatly, what originaly was a simple idea became more complex as the volume of “traffic” increased and the likewise the suporting systems. At the same time others (TEMPEST etc) used the naming convention for their own ends with the enevitable result it became as clear as the proverbial…

averros November 3, 2009 4:36 AM

“All we appear to have done is swap Kings, Dukes and robber Barons for presidents, burocrats and global conglomerates, oh and the “court jesters”…”

Yep, and the truth is, Kings and Dukes were much better. The total burden of taxation during the days of absolute monarchy was usually about 5% of income, seldom going to 10%, the total wars were unheard of (simply because population didn’t give a crack about which king is over them) – and everybody who ever read “Three Musketeers” couldn’t help but be amazed that in the middle of a very aggravated conflict, an officer travels to the capital of the enemy as a private person – and not only not arrested and jailed – but actually welcomed.

“well we appear to elect them these days to represent us…”

“Appear” is the key word. Choice from a bunch of complete scoundrels isn’t really a choice. I wouldn’t lend five dollars till tomorrow to any of them.

neighbourWatch November 3, 2009 8:43 AM

Millions of dollars that make us less safe, because terrorist can use Skype for free and by pass all this nonsense.
Gathering information is about proximity, not connectivity. The same fallacy is at work when law enforcement focuses more on swat teams at the expense of neighbourhood cops. Power is gained in efficacy and the ‘theater’ effect, but what is lost is the quality of information and its price.
I am sure someone can come up with yet another clever way to improve the surveillance by using predictive models based on less information, and perhaps catch terrorists based on how and when they connect to skype.
But what do they make us give up ?

Elry November 3, 2009 4:54 PM

2001 had very little to do with infringing our civil liberties.

CALEA was passed by a Democratic controlled Congress in 1994 and signed into law by a Democratic President.

You can also look up the history of the Clipper Chip which did NOT get implemented during the same time frame.

Nick P November 4, 2009 2:03 PM

@ Arno

I think Clive adequately explained the tapes, but his messages on red and green are unclear. I’ll try to help, here. He was originally referring to the concept of Red-Black separation, although different people use different color schemes. Red represents sensitive, unencrypted information (i.e. plaintext). Black represents that information in encrypted form. The two colors may also refer to the hardware that’s used to store and transmit the two types of data: red for sensitive unencrypted and black for ciphertext-only storage and transmission. RED/BLACK is usually mentioned for emanation security issues (TEMPEST).

A good crypto design will use different physical and software channels for the two different types of info, and will ensure that Red (plaintext) data never touches channels intended to send Black data. The reason is that the Black side is often an untrusted network and any Red data on it could go right into enemy hands. That’s Red-Black in a nutshell. It’s very hard, most COTS systems break most Red-Black rules, and that’s why they all suck. Here’s a few links for you on the topic.

TEMPEST-oriented Red-Black Powerpoint

Micro-SINA – Red/Black-style Networking

For more on this topic, look into “Guards,” “Pumps,” “Tenix Data Diode,” and “MILS SKPP.” These are what modern efforts build on at systems-level.

Nimity November 4, 2009 2:08 PM

@ Tim and Bob

Yes, those of us with strong privacy needs already take care of business. Our practical schemes are almost a decade old, although specifics change. These schemes ensure anonymity and confidentiality even in face of many forms of surveillance. It’s not the guilty or the paranoid that must worry about government surveillance: it’s the innocent. They will always be the victims. But, hey, they “have nothing to hide,” do they? 😉

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