United States General Accounting Office
Briefing Report to the Chairman,
Subcommittee on Telecommunications
and Finance, Committee on Energy and
Commerce, House of Representatives
FBI Advanced Communications Technologies Pose Wiretapping Challenges.
General Accounting Office
Washington, D.C. 20548
Information Management and Technology Division
July 17, 1992
The Honorable Edward J. Markey
Chairman, Subcommittee on
Telecommunications and Finance
Committee on Energy and Commerce
House of Representatives
Dear Mr. Chairman:
In March 1992, you asked us to evaluate the (1) technologic alternatives
available or imminently available to the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) to wiretap voice and data communications,1 (2) changes required to
the telecommunications network to accommodate least intrusive wiretaps 2
and (3) estimated cost of developing and implementing such changes. On
June 26, 1992, we briefed your office on the results of our evaluation.
At that time, we also discussed the FBI's past and current actions to
satisfy its wiretapping needs, including its April 1992 proposal to amend
the Communications Act of 1934 and its May 1992 proposal for separate
legislation to provide for its wiretapping needs by the
telecommunications industry. This report documents our briefing. Appendix
I contains the slides we used at that briefing. (ommitted from text)
The FBI has classified our analysis of the technological alternatives to
wiretapping as National Security Information. In this regard, we provided
your office with a classified briefing on our analysis on June 15, 1992.
RESULTS IN BRIEF
The technological wiretap alternatives available to the FBI and the
network changes needed to accomodate the least intrusive wiretaps vary
depending on the technology used. However, neither the FBI nor the
telecommunications industry has systematically identified the
alternatives, or evaluated their costs, benefits, or feasibility.
The FBI, in its April 1992 legislative proposal, did not define its
wiretapping needs. The May 1992 proposal generally addressed the FBI's
needs, but did
1. Wiretapping refers to the real-time collection of dialed digits and
sending of real-time, two-way communications to a listening device,
regardless of the target's location or the technology used. Real time
means collecting and sending this information to a listening device as it
is being communicated.
2. The term intrusive refers, for purposes of this report, to the level
of the w[retap's detectability by the wiretap's target.
not provide specifics necessary for the telecommunications industry to
determine what would constitute full compliance with the proposal in the
event it were enacted. For example, the proposal did not specify the
length of time allowed to install a wiretap after receipt of a court
order. Further, the May 1992 proposal did not address who should pay for
the cost of wiretapping solutions. FBI and industry officials have
recently begun working together to identify technological altematives
available to the FBI for wiretapping and to select the alternatives that
best meet their needs.
The FBI considers wiretapping an essential information gathering tool in
fighting crime. The federal government and 37 states have statutes
The FBI now has the technical ability required to wiretap certain
technologies, such as analog voice communications carried over public
networks' copper wire. However, since 1986, the FBI has become
increasingly aware of the potential loss of wiretapping capability due to
the rapid deployment of new technologies, such as cellular and integrated
voice and data services, and the emergence of new technologies such as
Personal Communication Services, satelites, and Personal Communication
In response to the rapidly changing technology, the FBI prepared two
legislative proposals in April and May 1992. The May proposal replaced
the April proposal.3 According to the FBI, these proposals are intended
to maintain the same level of wiretapping capability for new
telecommunications technology that it has with technologies such as older
analog communications using copper wire.
TECHNOLOGICAL ALTERNATIVES AND NETWORK CHANGES REQUIRED TO IMPLIMENT
LEAST INTRUSIVE WIRETAPS VARY WITH THE TECHNOLOGY
There are six current or imminent telecommunications technologies that
the FBI needs to be able to wiretap. These are (1) analog and digital
using copper wire transport, (2) analog and digital using fiber optic
transport, (3) Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), (4) Private
Branch Exchange (PBX), (5) broadband, and (6) cellular. There are also
three future technologies for which wiretapping capabilities need to be
addressed: (1) satellite switches, (2) Personal Communication Services
(PCS), and (3) Personal Communication Number (PCN). Further, the FBI
FN 3. The May proposal has not been formally introduced in legislation in
either the Senate or the House of Representatives.
needs to be able to wiretap any special features, such as call forwarding
or electronic mail.
Wiretapping can occur at six primary locations through which the
communications flow-at the premises where the target is located, between
the premises and the cross-connect,4 at the cross-connect, or at a land
line, cellular, or satellite switch.
The technological alternatives for wiretapping vary with the
telecommunications technology being tapped and the location where the tap
occurs. For example, the technology used to tap a nondigital telephone is
different from that used to tap a digital telephone. Further, tapping at
the premises may require a different technology from tapping at a switch.
Similarly, the network changes needed to implement the least intrusive
wiretaps vary by technology and location.
Because the FBI has classified our analysis of these alternatives as
National Security Information, we are not presenting them in this report.
NO COMPREHENSIVE STUDIES EXIST IDENTIFYING ALTERNATIVES AND THEIR COSTS
BENEFITS, AND FEASIBILITY
As of June 30, 1992, neither the FBI nor the telecommunications industry
had systematically identified the alternative approaches for implementing
minimally intrusive wiretapping capabilities and the costs, benefits, and
feasibility of these alternatives.
The FBI's and telecommunication industry's past efforts to identify
technological alternatives have been unsuccessful. In the past, the FBI
met with security officers within the telephone companies to effect
wiretaps. According to the FBI and industry officials, these security
officers were the designated company contacts for meeting the FBI's
However, industry security officers did not discuss the FBI's wiretapping
needs with the industry's technical experts who develop the technologies.
Consequently, these experts were not informed of the FBI's needs and were
not involved in identifying technological altematives and solutions until
July 1990, when the FBI began technical discussions with them.
In addition, while the FBI conducted its own research on wiretapping,
these research efforts were not coordinated with industry research and
4. The cross-connect is located at the central office of the telephone
company; this is where transmissions be converted from one form to
another, e.g., from analog to digital.
development.. a result, neither the FBI nor the telecommunications
industry had a comprehensive analysis of the technological alternatives
for wiretapping current and emerging technologies.
RECENT FBI ACTIONS TO DEFINE AND COMMUNICATE ITS WIRETAPPING NEEDS
Recently the FBI has taken actions to better define and communicate its
wiretapping needs to the telecommunications industry. The April 1992
proposal to amend the Communications Act of 1934 did not define the FBI's
wiretapping needs. In contrast, the May 1992 proposal for separate
legislation, which replaced the April proposal, contains specific
high-level discussion of its needs. For example, the May proposal states
that tapped data must be in the same form as that received by the target
and the data must be in real time, independent of the target's location,
undetectable, and capable of being transmitted to a listening device. It
also specifies time limits for meeting the FBI's needs and gives the
Department of Justice the authority to ensure compliance or grant
However, the May proposal does not address what the telecommunications
industry would need to do to be in full compliance with the proposal in
the event it is enacted, the meaning of certain technical terms, or who
would pay for the cost of wiretapping solutions. For example, the
proposal did not specify the length of time allowed to install a wiretap
after receipt of a court order. According to the FBI, it will address
compliance in its wiretapping requirements document, which is being
developed. The proposal also does not address the international
implications of future technologies, such as PCN, on wiretapping. PCN
will involve assigning a subscriber one telephone number. All calls will
be fed to that number regardless of what instrument or network the
subscriber uses. Using PCN, the subscriber may be anywhere in the world,
and the service may be provided by any service provider using any
technology. Since some of the service providers may be international, and
since the providers may be outside the United States, the FBI will have
to establish cooperative arrangements with foreign law enforcement
agencies in order to wiretap.
In May 1992, the FBI formed a technical committee composed of staff from
the FBI and the telecommunications industry. The purpose of this
committee is to identify technological alternatives and select the
alternatives that best meet the FBI's needs. As of June 1992, the
committee was developing its charter. These FBI efforts are steps in the
SCOPE AND METHODOLOGY
We identified and assessed the technological alternatives for wiretapping
in the following technologies: (1) analog and digital using copper wire
transport, (2) analog and digital using fiber optic transport, (3) ISDN,
(4) PBX, (5) broadband, (6) cellular, (7) satellite, (8) PCS, and (9)
PCN. As part of our assessment, we also analyzed the wiretapping
implications of special features associated with these technologies, such
as call forwarding and voice mail. On the basis of our analysis of the
technologies and discussions with representatives of the
telecommunications industry, we identified the six primary wiretapping
We also assessed the FBI's past and current actions to satisfy its
wiretapping needs, including its April 1992 proposal to amend the
Communications Act of 1934, and its May 1992 proposal.
We met with the FBI's Assistant Director and Deputy Assistant Director
(Operations), Technical Services Division, and technical managers from
the FBI Engineering Research Facility to discuss the FBI's progress in
defining and communicating its wiretapping needs. We also held technical
discussions on the above technologies with four Bell operating telephone
companies, two switch manufacturers, two cellular providers, two cellular
and satellite manufacturers, and the associations of the International
Chiefs of Police and Major Cities Chiefs of Police. In addition, we
contacted the National Security Agency, which told us that it does not
have expertise in these areas. We performed our work at FBI's
headquarters offlee in Washington, D.C., and Engineering Research
Facility in Quantico, Virginia, as well as at the corporate offices of
the industry representatives visited in various locations nationwide.
Our work was performed between April and June 1992 in accordance with
generally accepted government auditing standards.
We did not obtain written comments on this report. However, we briefed
FBI officials, including the Assistant Director and Deputy Assistant
Director (Operations), Technical Services Division, on the results of our
work and on our discussions with the telecommunications industry. These
officials generally agreed with the facts as presented, including our
technical assessment of the wiretapping alternatives, We have
incorporated their views, as well as their updates on the FBI's planned
actions, in the report as appropriate.
As agreed with your office, unless you publicly announce the contents of
this report earlier, we plan to make no further distribution until 30
days from the date of this letter. We will then send copies to the
Attorney General; the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation;
the Director, Office of Management and Budget; and interested
congressional committees. Copies will also be made available to others
upon request. This report was prepared under the direction of Howard G.
Rhile, Director, General Government Information Systems, who can be
reached at (202) 512-6418. Major contributors to this report are listed
in appendix II.
Ralph V. Carlone
Assistant Comptroller General
Copies of this document may be obtained from the
United States General Accounting Office
PO Box 6015
Gaithersburg, Md 20877