CNET is reporting today that the FBI has quietly created a new web surveillance unit, charged with the task of developing new ways to intercept online, wireless, and VoIP communications. The Bureau has thus far been rather tight-lipped about its unit, known as the Domestic Communications Assistance Center, declining to name even the person in charge of it. CNET, however, was able to glean and piece together information about the initiative through interviews and reviews of internal government documents.

According to these sources, DCAC is designed to cover a relatively broad scope of surveillance- and security-related issues. Its mandate includes intercepting Skype messages, building wiretap devices, and serving as a "surveillance help desk" for local, state, and federal authorities. The outfit will also be responsible for analyzing any data a provider or social network may submit in response to court orders. A source close to the matter told CNET that the DCAC is currently being launched, though it's not yet operational. A Justice Department document, however, describes the agency as "recently established."

The FBI has long pushed for a more comprehensive approach to electronic surveillance, on the grounds that recent encryption developments have made it far more difficult for investigators to intercept communications. In February, then-general counsel Valerie Caproni testified before the House Judiciary Committee, arguing for new legislation that would require social networks and wireless providers to have clear procedures for divulging encrypted data when requested to do so by the government.

Valerie added that new laws were needed because "individually tailored solutions have to be the exception and not the rule." According to CNET's sources, these "individually tailored solutions" are exactly what DCAC has been charged with developing — customized surveillance technologies designed for isolated companies or individuals.

"We should know more about the program and what the FBI is doing."

Internal documents show that the DCAC has been in the works since at least 2008, when FBI director Robert Mueller received a briefing on it. Until recently, though, it's remained shrouded in secrecy. The unit has no website, has never been formally announced, and has only received passing mention in public budget requests.

This secrecy has raised concerns among some civil libertarians, including Jennifer Lynch, an attorney at the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. "We should know more about the program and what the FBI is doing," Lynch told CNET. "Which carriers they're working with — which carriers they're having problems with. They're doing the best they can to avoid being transparent."

The FBI did provide a statement on its new center (referred to here, and elsewhere, as the National Domestic Communications Center, or NDAC), emphasizing that the unit will only provide the technical foundation for wiretap investigations, without actually performing any surveillance itself. "It is important to point out that the NDCAC will not be responsible for the actual execution of any electronic surveillance court orders and will not have any direct operational or investigative role in investigations," the statement reads. "It will provide the technical knowledge and referrals in response to law enforcement's requests for technical assistance."