Monday, January 31, 2005

Has BellSouth Been Helping Spy on Your Email?

Friday's a good day for catching up on things. One very interesting development on the national scene recently has been the scandal over warrantless spying on Americans by the current administration and whether or not it could be justified.

That may have sounded a little familiar to readers that recall local fiber disputes. During the fiber referendum one of the sillier things that opponents brought up was a baseless fear that the local government would spy on you. The retort at the time was that LCG wasn't the level of govt. to worry about--that Joey showed no interest but the feds certainly had. Recent developments have proven that retort pretty insightful--and have implicated our phone companies. From O'Reilly:

All the warrantless wiretapping we've recently heard about required help from the telephone companies and Internet service providers. These companies knew they were not only aiding the government in breaking the law, but were themselves violating terms of service for their customers--and in the case of telephone companies, also breaking the law. One law mentioned at the public form (and submitted years ago by the forum's moderator, Congressman Ed Markey) forbids cell phone companies from revealing the location of cell phone users--except with a court warrant.

In fact, the NSA wiretapping scandal represents one of the largest conspiracies in recent years: a conspiracy between telephone companies and the government to defraud Americans out of our Fourth Amendment rights.

What didn't occur to any at the time of the referendum, but is now clear, was that in order for the Federales to spy on you they would need at least the tacit assistance of the Bells who own and maintain the big trunk lines headed across the country and overseas. What's come out recently, in dribs and drabs is that "tacit" wasn't needed: the Bells are willing to hand you over without qualm--or warrant. Mostly this has come to light through two avenues. First universities, over whose servers and trunks internet based traffic escapes the Bell networks, have put up the resistance that the Bells didn't citing old-fashioned, academic things like "illegal," "warrantless," and "the freedom of speech." The universities have been given, point blank, the old childhood excuse: "Everybody does it." Being a tad more mature, the universities aren't buying that schoolboy excuse. The second avenue, of course, has been the recent scandal that caused a few reporters to go back to those odd, underreported remarks by universities.

The administration has said that surveillance has been limited. Unfortunately, given the technologies involved, that's simply not possible. The decentralized nature of the internet, nonserial flow of packets, and the inclusion of encrypted data makes massive data mining--winnowing through all those packets the only practical way to pull coherent data out of the net. You have to look at 'em all to get to the ones you want. Targeted warrants are pretty hard to execute in the real world. There is just too much to examine. The easiest way to make the flow more manageable is to cut back what you examine--to, for instance, all of the data flowing out of the country. To do that efficiently the best bet is to have access to the Bell switches routing traffic outbound. They know where that data is coming from and so federal agents wouldn't, for instance, try and puzzle out encrypted data from the banks or calls originating and terminating overseas. Stories have made it clear that international traffic originating or terminating in the US is what is being spied upon without warrant. From an article in the Chicago Tribune:
The decentralized nature of the Internet and the multiplicity of ways to communicate further complicate the task of wholesale eavesdropping, said Daniel Berninger, a communications analyst with Tier 1 Research.

By focusing on traffic that leaves the country, government agents can tap into optical fiber lines that are buried on the oceans and on radio signals bounced off satellites in space, Berninger said.

This provides some identifiable "choke points" where communications enter and leave the country, he said, providing an easier task than trying to randomly monitor domestic traffic that flows on the Internet in all directions around the country, he said...

Looking at data such as which phone numbers are called from which numbers can provide a lot of useful information, said Paul Bradley, a consultant with Apollo Data Technologies LLC, a Chicago-based data mining software firm.

The revelation that the Bells handed over your privacy without a murmur merely give us another reason to favor having local people, answerable to local concerns is preferable to the current setup in which the corporations are effectively accountable to no one but a few buddy-buddy federal bureaucrats. Most certainly they feel no necessity to respect their customers.

If it makes life a little easier for the big corporation to give the feds warrantless, baseless access to your phone and DSL switches, well why not? Who, that the phone companies care about, cares? Surely not the FCC. Just about the only people in this country who can effect your bottom line are in the federal government. Why not please 'em?

I say we are better off trusting local institutions; especially municipalities that have to operate under the glare of Open Access laws. After all, public universities is where this story first started to surface. As the O'Reilly article points out:
One might argue that the pressure would have been even stronger if ISPs and phone companies were smaller, but size obviously hasn't helped them put up any resistance. Believe me, if we had an industry of scrappy Mom-and-Pop providers like in the 80s and 90s, word about this civil liberties horror would have come out sooner.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As I read an Internet 'guidance' booklet, it gave some advise on usual computer protection moves. Then, as I suspected, at the end it 'insinuated' that urban legends, rumours, bad talk about someone and 'gossip' are not breaking the law but could lead to bad results. Who is to determine what is gossip or rumours and what might be future consequences for voicing an 'opinion'? I hope to find out.