FBI Spies, Conceals From Congress

Sony was shredded by a group that the government claims is based in North Korea, a theory that almost nobody in the security field finds credible. CENTCOM’s Twitter was the subject of a hilarious false flag takeover that credited ISIS, a claim that is considered questionable due to certain cultural nuances in what it communicated. Ross Ulbricht’s trial has begun with talk of jury nullification and claims that he is not Dread Pirate Roberts.

The common threads behind this are the U.S. Government’s cyber-incompetence, despite massive spending and the complete dereliction of oversight duty on the part of Congress.

Edward Snowden’s leak has shown just how bad things are, but until we hold the feet of Congress to the fire, we are left piecing together what is happening by using the Freedom Of Information Act to liberate details. A recent FOIA response (pdf) obtained by the New York Times reveals just how unconstitutional their efforts are.

Reading Between The Black

DoJPrior to going very far into this you should know that the review was produced by the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice. This is an independent internal department responsible for oversight that has a dual reporting path – one to the U.S. Attorney General and the other to Congress. The OIG semi-annual activity reports are freely available, but we won’t see this specific FAA report summarized until April of 2015.

Reading the 284-page PDF entitled “A Review of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Activities Under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act of 2008” is an exercise in patience. Perhaps 50% of it is black out redacted, leaving little more than paragraph headings for page after page. The most important clues are the ‘implicit hyperlinks’ to external information in the form of dates that certain practices were first implemented, terminated, or otherwise modified.

  • FISA Amendment Act passed July 2008
  • FBI begins receiving & holding some raw data October 2009
  • Only ONE annual report was done by February 2012, covering 7/2008-9/2009
  • Congress extends FAA until 2017 December 2012

Four years of potentially unconstitutional spying. One mandated annual report completed. The month after that report the FBI starts keeping raw data and stops reporting on what it’s doing. You can draw your own conclusions from this.

A Deeper Understanding

Reading a single FOIA is likely to be extremely frustrating for a novice. The responses are calculated to do this. Although now six years old, James Bamford’s The Shadow Factory is much more substantial than the short Wikipedia entry might lead you to believe, and it provides an excellent overview of what is happening within the NSA. A good companion for this book is Timothy Shorrock’s Spies For Hire, which covers the “if you can’t buy, you can’t spy” ethos that has come with the outsourcing of the bulk of our intelligence collection work.

You can follow Bamford at @WashAuthor and Shorrock at @TimothyS. Both use Twitter socially, but they keep up a good flow of information on their areas of expertise.

Further Dereliction In The Works

You might think that an unconstitutional (and terribly ineffective) spying program might be of great interest to a penny-pinching Congress, but instead they appear to be ready to do the exact opposite. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has just offered the batty idea that they’re going to make end to end encryption illegal, so the White House’s plan (pdf) to expand on the already deeply flawed Computer Fraud & Abuse Act seems almost reasonable in comparison.

The full impact of the proposed amendment, which covers eleven pages, have touched off a firestorm of wrath from security researchers. Those who are engaged in hunting exploits, even if they follow community standards for responsible disclosure, could be prosecuted. The consensus is that the proposed changes will hobble U.S. security research, pushing the best talent overseas, while pushing our country further behind in this area.

Images from Wikimedia Commons and Shutterstock.