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Terrorists detonate deadly bombs at the Boston Marathon. Hackers stun Hollywood with a devasting cyberattack. A sinister black market peddles drugs and death in the dark corners of the Internet. All of these are under the purview of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

Today’s terrorists, cybercriminals and digital drug lords are the new gangsters and mobsters hunted by the FBI, America’s top crime-fighting force. When not under attack from the U.S. President, the FBI has done a fairly good job of securing the nation. The FBI have thwarted crime throughout its history.  And now, they will be challenged to disrupt cybercrime into the future.

For more than a century, the FBI has been making headlines, its exploits made legendary by a sometimes cooperative, sometimes combative press. Since its debut in 1908, the FBI has brought tens of thousands of criminals to justice from cases like the Lindbergh baby kidnapper to arresting gangsters John Dillinger to finding and prosecuting the Unabomber.

The FBI says it guards national security without compromising privacy, but many Americans still worry that the government is snooping on them through organizations like the FBI. This concern sparks fresh debates in a long-simmering conflict over national security and civil liberties. People go back and forth about what we are willing, or should be willing, to give-up to assure a safer society.  

Pre- 9/11

President Theodore Roosevelt created the bureau in 1908, despite the opposition he faced from Congress that claimed a national police force would enable federal overreach. Prior to one of the most ominous days in modern US history, the FBI was largely responsible for solving complex crimes and enforcing Federal laws.

Over the years, the FBI expanded its scope from kidnappings to espionage to hunting Nazis inside the U.S. Depending on the point in history demanding the protection of our society, the FBI has found itself identifying and arresting Soviet spies. Many years ago, the Cold War made people frantic about spies who were snooping for communist countries. The FBI became more involved in safeguarding national security as concerns continued to grow. Eventually, they even began investigating U.S. citizens at the behest of Director Hoover, a politically motivated, but passionate bureaucrat.

Post- 9/11

On September 11, 2001, nineteen Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. Though the FBI had bits and pieces of information surrounding this massive attack, they were unable to coordinate with other agencies to put all the crucial logistics together. Still considered to be one of, if not the most devastating terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, 9/11 shook the United States to its core. Americans blamed the government for a lack of security and surveillance and demanded more protection.

The 9/11 Commission determined that had there been more communication and cooperation between, and within agencies, Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center could have been halted. There was evidence the attacks could have at the very least been minimized. This led to the Patriot Act. It was developed and made into law six weeks after the attacks. The law was signed by then- President, George W. Bush and most Americans were okay with the provisions.

The Patriot Act strengthened national security. It enhanced the government’s authority to safeguard the nation against terrorism by widening the scope of surveillance. New authorities were created in order to identify and thwart threat. The law had several allowances opening the gate to more wiretapping, electronic surveillance and language supporting legal electronic tracking of Americans. The FBI gained new authorities to search telephones, review e-mails, and access financial records without a court order.

Since its passage, several legal issues and citizen concerns have arisen surrounding privacy. With story-after-story emerging about the Government’s use of digital records, secret wiretapping, and hidden bugs, citizens question what we have given up for our security. In some cases, these concerns are exacerbated by news reports organizations like the FBI are spying on citizens without just cause. It is not difficult to see how and why these authorities both frighten and upset people.

Our New Cyber Future

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 highlighted a need for better computer and network access. This supported the launch of a sector of responsibilities for the FBI: cybersecurity. The importance of protecting cyberspace became even more important as terror, crime and an explosion of electronic businesses hit the Internet in the next few years. This activity used to be managed by the electronic crime division of the organization. In 2002, the Cyber Division was created at the FBI because the broad nature of cybercrime and cyber-terrorism demanded a national security perspective and better coodination. A cyber-attack could disable critical national functions or cause economic loss damaging industries that support robust U.S. commerce.

The FBI’s Cyber Division focuses on 21st century threats related to cyber intrusions and internet fraud that can undermine the safety and stability of the United States. With the use of malware and the Deep Web, hackers are well equipped target computer users from citizens to election infrastructure. The Cyber Division promotes partnerships with local and federal law enforcement, works through the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force (NCIJTF) and cyber investigative squads located in each FBI field office across the country. But it also listens to phone calls and reads emails related to people they have determined to be targets. They assure there will never be a cyber 9/11.  

Where do we draw the line?

With the rise of cybersecurity risks, both federal and local authorities have adjusted their practices to address online threats. Clearly, this will require a new approach to privacy and an acceptance of the public that FBI access is required. Recently, tech giant Apple tangled with the FBI about whether Apple should provide backdoors to systems on Apple’s platform. As this debate raged, the question became clear.

The question is not whether the government should be doing electronic surveillance in our digitized world. It is the only way for them to protect us. We must determine as a nation to what extent the government should be able to intrude on the private lives of American people. And, are we willing to die for our privacy.  

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