FBI seeks smartphone app for undercover recording

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The FBI is looking for a software app to let undercover officers and informants surreptitiously record audio and eventually video on their smartphones and stream it back to government servers in a tamper-proof and courtroom-ready format.

In procurement documents posted last month but previously unreported by mainstream news organizations, the bureau states that the app will be used for ‘covert, evidentiary audio collection from smartphones.’

‘The basic capability will be audio, but GPS location information is also desired and eventually video capability,’ reads a request for information’s draft technical requirements from the FBI. An RFI is typically issued by an agency seeking information about what products and/or capabilities are available in the marketplace before it puts out a more formal request for proposals from vendors.

The FBI wants the app to be installed “without having to ‘jailbreak’ the phone,” according to the draft. It should work on phones that run Android, iOS, or Windows systems. The RFI says the bureau hopes to make the purchase in the final quarter of next year.

The draft cites two ‘concepts of operation’ in which the app would be used. One is an overt/interview scenario in which FBI agents ‘can use the phone as a field audio/video recorder when access to standard interview rooms and equipment is not feasible.’

The second is a covert mode. In this scenario, the app ‘will allow the phone to be placed into a stealth mode, either by the user of the phone, or remotely … [which] turns the phone into a covert recorder to surreptitiously capture audio and video,’ states the draft.

That language has led some right-wing websites to postulate that the app is intended to be loaded onto the phones of potential suspects, so that their activities, as well as their communications, can be monitored.

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment, but a former law enforcement official told Cyberscoop that the app was not likely intended for that purpose.

He noted that the draft states ‘The recorder [i.e. the phone on which the app is loaded] shall also have the capability to turn the audio and GPS location transmissions on and off.’

‘Clearly you wouldn’t want that if the app was designed to be used on a ‘phone under the control of the suspect or target,’ said the former official. ‘It only makes sense if the person operating the recorder was part of the surveillance, not its target.’

Moreover, in the context of the covert mode, the draft refers to the need to keep audio streaming in ‘an ‘officer safety’ scenario,’ again, strongly suggesting the app will be used on undercover agents’ phones.

The draft states that the vendor will have to provide unique, predetermined codes for each operation, ensure that audio cannot be edited and that each recording is protected by a cryptographic hash to ensure its integrity and create a chain-of-custody.

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