The U.S. government is quietly pressuring telecommunications providers to install eavesdropping technology deep inside companies’ internal networks to facilitate surveillance efforts.
FBI officials have been sparring with carriers, a process that has on occasion included threats of contempt of court, in a bid to deploy government-provided software capable of intercepting and analyzing entire communications streams. The FBI’s legal position during these discussions is that the software’s real-time interception of metadata is authorized under the Patriot Act.
Attempts by the FBI to install what it internally refers to as “port reader” software, which have not been previously disclosed, were described to CNET in interviews over the last few weeks. One former government official said the software used to be known internally as the “harvesting program.”
Carriers are “extra-cautious” and are resisting installation of the FBI’s port reader software, an industry participant in the discussions said, in part because of the privacy and security risks of unknown surveillance technology operating on an sensitive internal network.
It’s “an interception device by definition,” said the industry participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because court proceedings are sealed. “If magistrates knew more, they would approve less.” It’s unclear whether any carriers have installed port readers, and at least one is actively opposing the installation.
In a statement from a spokesman, the FBI said it has the legal authority to use alternate methods to collect Internet metadata, including source and destination IP addresses: “In circumstances where a provider is unable to comply with a court order utilizing its own technical solution(s), law enforcement may offer to provide technical assistance to meet the obligation of the court order.”
AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Comcast, and Sprint declined to comment. A government source familiar with the port reader software said it is not used on an industry-wide basis, and only in situations where carriers’ own wiretap compliance technology is insufficient to provide agents with what they are seeking.