FBI surveillance systems get digital upgrade

FBI surveillance systems get digital upgrade


Amid ongoing debate over surveillance tools' potential to invade privacy, the FBI is replacing its analog wiretapping equipment with digital systems in all 56 field offices.

Under the Digital Storm program, the bureau will replace large reel-to-reel tape recorders with PC specially tuned for audio storage capability. The minimum requirement for running the digital recording applications is an 800-MHz Pentium PC with 256M of RAM and RAID Level 5 storage.

About 20 percent of the FBI offices already have the new digital systems. With a budget of $30 million for fiscal 2001, the FBI Laboratory this year will upgrade as many field offices as possible, said Michael T. Elliott, unit chief for telecommunications intercept and collection technology. The bureau plans to finish the conversion to digital by 2003.

The new systems vastly improve investigators' ability to review the evidence collected, said Edward Allen, deputy assistant director of the FBI's Labratory Division. For instance, if an investigator wants to review a portion of a lengthy court-authorized wiretap between two suspected drug dealers, he would have to search multiple reels using the analog equipment'a cumbersome process.

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size="2" color="#FF0000">Wiretapping data that's available via computer raises abuse issues, Rep. Robert Barr says.

But with digital audio files on a PC, the data has metatags by day and time, making scanning simpler, Allen said.

Also, digital files create an audit trail for every interception, recording on the file both the time the monitoring began and ended, Allen said. That helps maintain data integrity, which is essential in court trials, compared to analog tapes, which require that investigators log such information on paper.

Time for storage

The FBI is required by law to maintain evidence for 10 years. The analog tapes deteriorate with time and are bulky; the digital files last longer and ease storage demands.

It's also easier for the FBI to transfer evidence within and between field offices using the digital audio files, bureau officials said. Moreover, investigators do not require any special training to use them.

But Digital Storm has opened a can of worms with some lawmakers and privacy watchdog organizations.

Rep. Robert Barr (R-Ga.), who has voiced concern about Internet privacy and law enforcement's surveillance powers, said making wiretapping information searchable and available to many individuals via computer increases the potential for abuse.

'I continue to believe such proposals should be subject to strict scrutiny before Congress grants them, and that they should receive regular and probing oversight if they are approved,' he said.

Jim Dempsey, senior staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization in Washington, said the FBI is attempting to exploit the data collection, analysis and manipulation capability of digital technology for law enforcement surveillance.

Privacy depends on legal standards that limit law enforcement surveillance, Dempsey said.

'Our legal standards are quite weak,' he said. 'Very rarely do they require a judge to turn down a government request for surveillance. No judge'federal or state'ever turns down a government request.'


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