WASHINGTON - When FBI investigators probing New York prostitution rings, organized crime in Boston, or potential terrorist plots anywhere want access to a suspect's telephone contacts, technicians at a telecommunications carrier served with a government order can, with the click of a mouse, instantly transfer key data along a computer circuit to an FBI technology office in Quantico, Va.
The circuits - little-known electronic connections between telecom firms and FBI monitoring personnel around the country - are used to tell the government who is calling whom, along with the time and duration of a conversation and even the locations of those involved.
Recently, three Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Chairman John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, sent a letter to colleagues citing privacy concerns over one of the Quantico circuits and demanding more information about it. Concerns about whether such electronic links are too intrusive form a backdrop to the continuing congressional debate over modifications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs federal surveillance.
Since a 1994 law required telecoms to build electronic interception capabilities into their systems, the FBI has created a network of links between the nation's largest telephone and Internet firms and about 40 FBI offices and Quantico, according to interviews and documents describing the agency's Digital Collection System. The documents were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on digital-rights issues.
The bureau's budget for the collection system increased from $30 million in 2007 to $40 million in 2008. Information lawfully collected by the FBI from telecom firms can be shared with law enforcement and intelligence-gathering partners, including the National Security Agency and the CIA.
Wiretaps to obtain the content of a phone call or an e-mail must be authorized by a court upon a showing of probable cause. But "transactional data" about a communication - from whom, to whom, how long it lasted - can be obtained by simply showing that the information is relevant to an official probe, including through an administrative subpoena known as a national security letter.