In the wake of the massacre in Orlando earlier this month, some, including journalists and a former deputy director of the FBI, have pointed to an alleged lack of resources as the cause for the bureau’s failure to stop Omar Mateen. It is difficult to judge this claim, however, due to the lack of available information about how the agency is funded. More details about the FBI’s budget emerged late last week, though, suggesting the bureau spends close to a billion dollars a year on surveillance technology.
This latest revelation came out of discussions Thursday and Friday, where FBI Deputy Assistant Director James Burrell reportedly said the bureau has a budget of “hundreds of millions of dollars” for its Operational Technology Division. Without any further caveats attached to that statement, it appears to confirm a report from late last year that the OTD had a budget at that time of between $600 to $800 million, making it the bureau’s largest division. The FBI has reportedly asked for over $100 million more, however, pushing the total to potentially close to a billion in the next fiscal year. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York also reportedly said last week that “resources with respect to cyber” within agencies such as the FBI have increased “ten-fold” in recent years.
Earlier this month I wrote about a Politico article by Garrett M. Graff that explored the FBI’s alleged “surveillance gap” (with a focus on the bureau’s human resources), which I compared to other reports of the FBI expanding its surveillance capabilities and winning a legal victory to keep some of them secret. That earlier post focused primarily on the bureau’s secretive utility pole cameras, however, and a broader overview of the FBI’s technical capabilities in the realm of surveillance seems in order.
The FBI has been reported to not only have surveillance cameras mounted surreptitiously on utility poles, but microphones hidden in trees, under rocks, and at bus stops. Beyond such conventional monitoring techniques, though, the FBI also has access to high-tech devices like Stingrays, which mimic cell phone towers, tricking nearby phones into connecting to them and then intercepting information, including things like text messages and even the content of calls.
Since 2008, the bureau has been stockpiling information in a massive biometrics database, including DNA profiles, finger and palm prints, and face recognition and iris scans of virtually anyone it can access information on, including millions of law-abiding citizens. In addition to the 30 million faces in its Next Generation Identification database, however, it recently came to light that the FBI can access multiple other government databases, scanning a total of more than 400 million photos for face recognition.
And while the ability to scan such a massive biometrics database with almost no oversight clearly represents a powerful resource at the FBI’s disposal, there are legitimate questions as to whether it’s been used appropriately. According to the Government Accountability Office report that revealed the greater extent of the FBI’s face recognition search capabilities, the bureau hasn’t done enough to ensure the system’s accuracy.
Earlier this year the FBI got into a high-profile fight with Apple over whether the bureau could demand that the company break its own encryption to unlock a phone related to the mass shooting in San Bernardino. The case was going to go to court, but was dropped when the FBI reportedly paid a hacker or hackers over $1 million to circumvent the phone’s security. “While the amount is the highest publicized figure ever paid for a hacking tool, it would seem to hardly have made a dent on the budget of hundreds of millions of dollars of the bureau,” notes Aaron Mamiit of Tech Times.
What perhaps has received less attention than the Apple case, though, is the planned expansion of the FBI’s remote hacking powers under what is called Rule 41. Despite grave concerns from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, if Congress doesn’t intervene to amend or reject an April Supreme Court ruling by December 1st, the bureau’s ability to remotely access computers and other devices will no longer depend on knowing their location.
In addition to these in-house remote hacking powers, the FBI also obviously can access surveillance data collected by other intelligence community branches such as the National Security Agency in certain cases, such as those involving Americans communicating with foreign terror suspects.
Graff writes of FBI agents “sitting in vans outside homes,” and of how only a small percentage of American citizens and residents that pose the greatest “radical threats” can be “under 24-hour watch.” He writes that the “precise number of round-the-clock FBI surveillance teams is classified,” that the bureau’s “agent corps” is less than half the size of the NYPD, and that these problems of insufficient resources have led the bureau to pursue its controversial strategy of launching sting operations against suspected terrorists. At times, Graff’s article seems to take an outdated view of the FBI, disconnected from the reality of modern surveillance technology.
To his credit, Graff points out that the FBI’s sting strategy against terrorism suspects has been extensively criticized, and even notes that FBI stings “surely have led some people down a violent road they might have always otherwise ignored, turning ‘aspirational’ terrorists into ‘operational’ ones.” But he ultimately seems to buy into the bureau’s narrative that its major problems stem from resources stretched thin, rather than ample resources being used towards strategically questionable ends.
“The Bureau’s view, anathema to many civil libertarians, is that it’s a better use of resources to spend weeks accelerating a radical’s path to violence than to follow him for months waiting for him to do something on his own timeline,” Graff writes.
“It’s not necessarily the best technique, FBI officials will concede,” according to Graff, “but—lacking the resources to spend months or years following hundreds of potential terrorists across the country—it’s the one most likely to ensure that people like Omar Mateen aren’t still walking around the streets.”
The fact that Omar Mateen is no longer walking the streets because he died in a shootout with police after killing dozens of people, rather than being picked up by the FBI, along with Graff’s statement earlier in the article that “it’s clear that the FBI actually devoted rather significant resources to investigating Omar Mateen,” seem to undercut the bureau’s argument. Perhaps encouraging and actively promoting terrorism is not actually the best use of FBI agents’ time.