Monday, April 10, 2006

AT&T's Role in Warrantless Spying Scandal

A new story on the warrantless wiretapping scandal has implicated AT&T, BellSouth's suitor in the unfolding warrantless wiretapping scandal.

--timeout for a quick background paragraph with an emphasis on how packet technology and political calculation appear to intertwine in this instance--

That crux of the affair has focused on whether or ont the president had the authority to order "wiretaps" (and the modern IP equivalents) of American citizens without a specific warrant. To date the administration has claimed that it does and that, in any case, its "intercepts" were limited to those calling Al Queda oversees. Technical types understand that such limited targeting would be difficult to achieve with any packet-based technology. Networks packets from one source are mixed with packets from other sources as a regular and necessary part of the way packet technologies work. Intercepts, therefore, would have to be based on various filtering schemes that would require dipping into and examining everyone's material. (The old, circuit-switched technologies did allow one to capture, or "wiretap" only the one "circuit" that comprised a phone conversation.) Not understanding this basic technical fact has lead political pundits to exhibit confusion as to why the current administration was unwilling to ask permission from a very agreeable secret court. If all it wanted to do was monitor calls to overseas Al Queda operatives that court would surely have granted it and was even empowered to grant permission retroactively (odd, contradictory concept, that; but it is part of the law) so as to not impede anyone who had to act quickly to block an immediate threat. The trouble is that the nature of the technology really requires spying on packets pretty much randomly and nearly universally to be useful enough to bother with. (An earlier version of this sort of technology, "carnivore," provoked a huge public outcry in the late 90's.) My guess is that once the administration fully understood that it was unwilling to go to a court and either 1) go on the record with deceptive characterizations of what it intended to do or 2) admit that it wanted to run its fingers over the whole internet, in effect spying not only on our citizens without a warrant but pretty much anyone whose data ran over the world wide web's key backbones.

--close timeout for a quick background paragraph on how packet technology and political calculation appear to intertwine--

The Wired story and interview covers a BellSouth employee claims that he helped route internet data into a secret room set up at the request of the National Security Agency (NSA).
AT&T provided National Security Agency eavesdroppers with full access to its customers' phone calls, and shunted its customers' internet traffic to data-mining equipment installed in a secret room in its San Francisco switching center, according to a former AT&T worker cooperating in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against the company.
With AT&T buying out BellSouth this becomes not only a national issue for citizens but a local issue for citizens of Lafayette and Louisiana: AT&T is worth worrying about when it comes to your privacy and AT&T's willingness to allow wholesale examination of customer data outside the rule of law. Those that run AT&T clearly believe themselves to be as much above the privacy laws as does the administration that made the requests of them. From the wired story and interview with the whistle-blower.
AT&T provided National Security Agency eavesdroppers with full access to its customers' phone calls, and shunted its customers' internet traffic to data-mining equipment installed in a secret room in its San Francisco switching center, according to a former AT&T worker cooperating in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against the company."
The worker, Klein, said in the interview:
Based on my understanding of the connections and equipment at issue, it appears the NSA is capable of conducting what amounts to vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the internet -- whether that be peoples' e-mail, web surfing or any other data.

"Despite what we are hearing, and considering the public track record of this administration, I simply do not believe their claims that the NSA's spying program is really limited to foreign communications or is otherwise consistent with the NSA's charter or with FISA," Klein's wrote. "And unlike the controversy over targeted wiretaps of individuals' phone calls, this potential spying appears to be applied wholesale to all sorts of internet communications of countless citizens."
Things have gotten seriously out of whack. And your local phone company is about to become part of it. As I understand it, the Louisiana Public Service Commission can raise issues that could block the sale if it thinks the people or the laws of the state would be damaged by the merger. I wonder what they think of all this. (Oh yeah...there are state laws against unsanctioned (aka illegal) interceptions as well, for what it is worth. And, for that matter, international treaties. If federal law does not suffice.)

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