FBI moves ahead with Digital Storm

A looming deadline and possible presidential veto aren't enough to deter

the Justice Department from a planned $25 million wiretap technology upgrade.

The plan detailing Digital Storm — an FBI program designed to replace

analog wiretap systems with digital ones — probably won't get to budget

appropriators by the Dec. 15 deadline, but officials aren't worried.

"Since there is no finalized budget, we expect those deadlines to change,"

a Justice spokeswoman said.

The bureau says it needs Digital Storm to keep pace with technology.

"A majority of electronic surveillance interceptions are being conducted

with [analog] technology that was developed decades ago," Justice officials

stated in documents supporting their fiscal 2001 budget request.

Old FBI equipment relies on traditional systems, such as large reel-to-reel

recorders. In a typical case, officials explained, agents tap multiple telephone

lines for hours every day for 60 to 90 days. Agents then must review the

tapes and cull information for their case.

With Digital Storm, the bureau intends to develop and deploy computer-based

systems that capture conversations digitally. That would produce better

quality intercepts, Justice officials said, and would enable agents to search

multiple digital records via a network.

Depending on funding — the FBI asked for $75 million — it could take

the bureau until 2010 to replace its 1,290 tape recorder wiretaps with Digital

Storm technology.

First, the FBI may have to convince Congress that it can manage another

information technology program. An information sharing initiative — formerly

dubbed eFBI — was stalled until a retired IBM Corp. executive joined the

effort by supervising what is now called a "technology upgrade program."

That program has since received a $100 million budget for 2001.

The bureau also must defend the program against critics concerned about

privacy issues. Some lawmakers and Washington, D.C., watchdog organizations

are concerned that the nation needs better safeguards to protect electronic

privacy before it gives law enforcement agencies more powerful surveillance

tools.

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