CALEA - The Act that lets the FBI Listen In

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), Pub. L. No. 103-414, 108 Stat. 4279 (1994) (codified at 47 USC §§ 1001-1010), was passed to facilitate wiretaps by law enforcement agencies by requiring telecommunications companies to develop systems that included built-in functions to conduct covert surveillance on telephone lines. It was expanded in 2006 by the Federal Communications Commission at the request of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the DEA to include the internet as well. When phone companies first implemented digital systems, the FBI was initially concerned that it would be technologically impossible to monitor phone conversations on the new systems.


In order to develop CALEA compliant systems, telecommunications and internet providers can engage outside companies. CALEA TTPs (trusted third parties) like VantagePoint (which provides networking engineering services to corporations) offer to intercept data in response to requests from law enforcement, and confirm a broadband system meets the provisions of CALEA.



Under the Act, law enforcements agencies are required to receive intercepted communications at a point outside of the telecommunications company's facility in order to discourage illegal wiretapping.


A CALEA 'Tap and Trace' wiretap will only cover the metadata of the call. 'Title III wiretap' is the term used to describe wiretaps which include the audio of phone conversations or the full content of text messages. Network taps will use a process called deep packet inspection to analyze the data in internet communications. However HTTPS protocols and VPNs can prevent deep packet inspection interceptions.


Router mirror ports can also be used to create copies of internet data transmissions.


The FBI has developed the Digital Collection System Network (DCSNet) to allow it conduct wiretaps without delay. A FBI employee can make a wiretap active with a few mouse clicks. The DCS-3000 ('Red Hook') software is used for pen registers or 'Tap and Traces'. The DCS-6000 software ('Digital Storm') captures the content of phone calls and text messages.



I don't know if the drafters of this legislation chose a title with the acronym CALEA on purpose, but amusingly Calea is shrub that has psychopharmacological properties and is, "used by Chontal Indians to receive divine messages during dreaming". Alexander de B.F. Ferraz, Pharmacological and Genotoxic Evaluation of Calea clematidea and Calea uniflora, 28(6) Lat. Am. J. Pharm. 858, 858 (2009).






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