To: ALL Date: 11-25-90 02:00 Re: FBI + YOUR BBS The FBI Comes Rapping, Rapping At Your BBS
From: WALLY SCHWARZ of Wally World 415/349-6969 (1:204/6969)
To: ALL Date: 11-25-90 02:00
Re: FBI & YOUR BBS
The FBI Comes Rapping, Rapping At Your BBS
Brock N. Meeks
The dog-eared manila envelope spilled a coffee stained report onto
my cluttered desk. The title, "The FBI and Your BBS" sounded a
little too nefarious, even for this curmudgeon of the information
age. But I figured the report was worth at least a quick read.
After all, somebody had gone to the effort to track down my address
and forward a copy of the report to me. That someone turns out to
be the report's author, Glen L. Roberts, director of The FBI
Project an organization which publishes a newsletter, Full
Disclosure, under the self defined category "privacy/surveillance."
The report is chilling, almost paranoid. And if more people had
known about its existence, a lot of grief might have been saved. As
I read I remembered an old, coffee-ringed file folder I'd
squirreled away. I remembered something about it's containing
information on what I'd off-handedly labeled "FBI Computer Hit
Squad." When I found the file, Roberts' report didn't seem so
paranoid and knew I was in for a long night of research and bunch
of early morning wake up interviews.
If you dig, you hit dirt
In 1984 a short series of discreet advertisements, placed by
the FBI, appeared in a few computer trade publications and in The
Wall Street Journal~ The message was simple, and went something
like: "We're looking for computer literate persons to join the
Bureau." There was no mention of any special task force; however,
it was clear that the Bureau wanted to upgrade their high-tech
Although the FBI won't confirm the existence of a computerized
"hit squad," an FBI public relations officer did confirm that they
"have made an extraordinary effort to recruit more technically
oriented personnel" since 1984.
If you dig hard enough, you'll find substantial evidence that
the FBI is most definitely working overtime in its efforts to
monitor the electronic community. "They are desperately wary of the
way information flows so freely in this medium," says Roberts.
Indeed, one has only to recall this past May when some 150 Secret
Service agents, assisted by local police (backed up with electronic
"intelligence" gathered and provided by the FBI) served some 27
search warrants in a dozen cities across the U.S.
The bust, code-named Operation Sun Devil, was patterned after
the tactics used to take down suspected drug rings: simultaneous
busts, synchronized arrests. All in an effort to preclude any
"early warnings" reaching the West via grapevine information moving
from the East.
I was curious about all these high tech hit tactics and armed
with my file folder and Roberts' report I called a number scrawled
on the inside flap of my file folder. It was annotated "Former
agent; possible source." I called the number, and got a story.
"I was recruited in 1983 by the FBI for my computer skills,"
the former agent told me. Because he still does some consulting for
the Bureau, he asked not to be identified, but he laid out a very
specific plan by the FBI to increase their knowledge of the
electronic communications world. He confided, "During my time the
Bureau's monitoring of BBSs was extremely limited; we just didn't
know how." In those days, he said, the FBI drew on the expertise of
a small band of high-tech freelance snoops to augment their staff,
"while we all honed our own skills."
Certainly the FBI has a tradition of "investigating" groups of
people it deems "unsavory" or threatening.
In Roberts' The FBI and Your BBS, there's a brief history of
the FBl's willingness to gather all known information on a target
group. Pulling from the Final Report of the Select (Senate)
Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to
Intelligence Activities, Book IV, Supplementary Reports on
Intelligence Activities, Roberts includes this excerpt:
"Detectives were sent to local radical publishing houses to
take their books. In addition, they were to find every private
collection or library in the possession of any radical, and to make
the arrangements for obtaining them in their entirety. Thus, when
the GID (General Intelligence Division) discovered an obscure
Italian born philosopher who had a unique collection of books on
the theory of anarchism, his lodgings were raided by the Bureau and
his valuable collection become one more involuntary contribution to
the huge and ever-growing library of the GID. [pages 87-88]."
Change "any radical" to "any BBS" and "book" to "disk" and
quite suddenly the electronic landscape turns into a winter still-
Roberts, quoting from his report, says, "Unlike other
communications media, information on a BBS does not get read by
anyone before its instantancous publication. Therefore, the FBI has
much less of a possibility of intimidating the owner of a BBS into
not publishing certain information. The FBI also acts as if BBSs
have a monopoly on the distribution of so-called 'illegal
information.' The FBI often uses this 'danger' as justification to
monitor the activities on these systems. In reality, however, BBSs
transfer much less 'illegal information' than the [voice] phone system."
Roberts statements are worth noting in light of the
goverment's increased interest in the marriage of criminal
activity and electronic communications.
A 455-page report issued by the President's Commission on
Organized Crime, dealing with drug abuse and trafficking cites that
fact that crime has moved into the high-tech arena. The report
states "To the extent that law eniorcement agencies' capabilities
and equipment are inferior to those of drug traffickers, immediate
steps should be taken to rectify the situation." The report then
recommends that data-gathering efforts of several agencies (in-
cluding the FBI) should be tied together in one "all-source
intelligence and operations center."
Any problem here?
There are no laws prohibiting the FBI (or other agencies) from
monitoring the public message traffic on a BBS; the Electronic Com-
munications Privacy Act of 1986 protects private messages and
privately stored files only. But what about an FBI agent monitoring
a BBS solely for the purpose of gathering intormation on the
board's users? Any problem here?
The former FBI agent I spoke with raised the concern that such
casual monitoring might be a violation of the 1968 Wiretap Act. "In
order for a wire tap, you have to get a court order. Now if an FBI
agent is monitoring a BBS to gather information, that becomes an
interesting question, because there are very specific federal rules
about a wire tap. My question to you about a BBS [being monitored]
is: "At what point does monitoring turn into a wiretap-like act?"
Good point. The reality is, however, that there are no rules.
Unless that agent is asking for private message traffic, he can,
without impunity, monitor, store, and otherwise manipulate your
public messages as he sees fit.
Roberts points out that a BBS with public access is fair game
for any kind of governmental snooping. But there is a way to make
such casual snooping by a federal agent a crime.
"If you want your BBS readily accessible to the public but want to
protect against unwarranted monitoring, you have to provide a
warning to prospective users," says Roberts. "It should read: 'This
BBS is a private system. Only private citizens who are not involved
in government or law enforcement activities are authorized to use
it. The users are not authorized to divulge any information gained
from this system to any government or law enforcement agency or
This does two things. It makes the entire board "private."
Second, it makes any kind of monitoring by the FBl (or other
agencies, such as the Secret Service) a criminal offense (because
they are would be guilty of unauthorized access; it also forces
them to use the established guidelines of gaining information via
a court ordered search warrant. The warning also protects you in
another way: it stops "freelancers" from doing the Bureau's work.
How real is the possibility of the FBI monitoring your BBS?
Much more than I'd like to believe. Although details of Operation
Sun Devil are still sketchy, it's clear that the FBI, working in
tandem with the Secret Service, is monitoring several hundred
"suspected" boards across the electronic landscape. What kind of
board is a potential monitoring target? "Any board that advocates
hacking," said a Secret Service spokesman. Yet when I asked for a
definition of hacking, all I was told was "illegal activity."
The information provided here bears out, if nothing else, an
increased interest by the FBI in the hard ball practice of going
after electronic criminals. But are the "good guys" getting caught
up with the bad?
How extensive is the FBl's actual fact gathering by monitoring
BBSs? No one knows really knows. However, given the history of
Bureau, and the hard facts that crime in the information age makes
full use of all the technology it can get its hands on, it's a
small leap to believe that at least specific monitoring, of certain
target groups, is taking place.
Where does that leave you and me in all this? Back to square
one, watching carefully what we say online. If you're a member of
a "controversial" BBS, you might pass the concerns of Roberts on to
your sysop. If you are a sysop, you might want to consider adding
a bit of protection to the board . . . for the rest of us.
Brock Meeks is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist whose
articles have appeared in several publications including Byte
Magazine. His favorite radical BBS is ... well...private.
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