Friday, May 12, 2006

BellSouth/AT&T Sells Your Privacy to Big Brother

Another chapter in the scandal about spying on us all has unfolded in a headlined USAToday story that has Congress in a justified uproar. BellSouth and AT&T are deep in the middle of this one too. USAToday reports on the latest aspect: The phone companies have sold our phone records to the federal government. All our phone records. Every call. Who to. Who from. Where to. Where from....everything is now sitting in federal databases.

BellSouth, AT&T, and Verizon simply sold it to them. Neither you nor I nor the local police nor anyone at the state, nor even Federal prosecutors hunting Mafia Dons could purchase those records. They are not supposed to be purchasable. They are not supposed to be available to anyone without a court order. This is flat-out illegal. That the phone companies made a tidy profit off it makes it all the more disgusting.

Understand clearly that this is corruption. And it illustrates how corruption always gets a toehold. It is the same story as the one that explains how policemen become bag men for criminals. One side entices the other side into a "little" illegal activity. Both sides now have something on the other--the policeman knows things that are dangerous to the crooks and the crooks know the policeman is on the take. A little mutual blackmail ensues and the pay-off and the level of illegality on both sides gets pushed up. In this case the National Security Agency seduces (most of) the phone companies into illegal but supposedly reliably hidden activity. Both sides engage for a while in their little bit of mutually profitable corruption. If the NSA want just a little more, more records, to record a few suspicious phone calls "on the side," just to "test" the search algorithms how can the Bells resist? If the phone companies want a little regulatory relief, if the want to keep the competition from snooping into their records or monitoring their networks for violations of contractual agreements can they count on the national security apparatus to run a blocking action for them with regulators. You know they can. The game is fundamentally corrupting. UPDATE: Dana Blankenhorn asks if this corrupt pattern has already played out. That's well worth considering.

And this wholesale invasion of privacy not the end of it. Not nearly. You can count on it.

I've insisted for awhile (1,2) that the technology involved in "monitoring" IP networks of necessity involves sifting through all the data. Earlier installments of this scandal have involved the administration telling us they were not really spying on Americans without a warrant, and then taking the fallback that if they were it was only on our overseas calls. Then we heard from an AT&T technician involved in installing the black rooms that they were setting up the capacity to spy on us all--that technician's point was similar to my own: that's just they way spying of packet-based architectures have to be done. Each packet has to be examined to know what is in it. Now we get this new story that phone company records are being illegally sold to the same shadowy agency that we understand was engaging in warrantless wiretapping.

It's the connection between the the illegal records sales and the warrantless wiretapping that constitutes the next big scandal...

Understand that these records are like a huge index of voice-based video traffic hashed on time and person. There's a lot that's not included in IP packets--if you "wiretap" an IP stream you don't get all the data you might want about the person or the actual endpoints of calls for instance. --How deep this issue goes I'm not sure...anyone who understands VOIP routing headers better than I is invited to comment.-- I do know that rerouting VOIP calls is standard practice, that's how you can get a call addressed to one person or number locally rerouted to your traveling number. That info would not be in the header but scattered around in various servers. But by using the big carrier's records and correlating that with what you pull from the IP stream you could reconstruct the whole call and all the relevant data about endpoints. The whole enchilada. Of course, if past behavior is any indication the big brother/phone company consortium won't own up to this. They'll substitute partially valid arguments about "traffic monitoring" and the value of monitoring chatter and understanding "al Queda's" social network.

But the hidden nut of all this goes back to the technician who is confident that what he helped AT&T install for the NSA is a system capable of secretly wiretapping all Americans. Just tapping the IP stream is not enough...nor is buy phone company index data. But mash those together and put some real computing horsepower and a lot of storage into it and you could effortlessly spy on any citizen you wanted to. All it would take would be the willingness to ignore a little thing called law.

The Silver Lining
In all the dispiriting muck there are two real gems: Leslie Cauley, who broke the story, and Qwest, the fourth Bell--the one that didn't go along and wasn't for sale.

You should remember Leslie Cauley's name and read what she puts under her byline. It took a rare combination, tech savvy, and political astuteness to know that there had to be a story to dig up. It took courage to decide to keep digging and doggedness to see it through. Plus, she can write. Of course, she'd already proven her savvy about the intersection of tech and politics..Cauley was the reporter who did the story "Bells dig in to dominate high-speed Internet realm" that focused national attention on Lafayette's fight for fiber.

Qwest is due kudos as well. Qwest is the smallest of the giant baby Bells and often dismissed as financially struggling. Much of its territory is in the relatively sparsely settled west and it struggles financially. But Qwest has significant overseas lines and a strong national backbone--which BellSouth for instance does not. Qwest, under the leadership of two CEOs demonstrated that it had a corporate culture that respected its customers' more than it desired the money offered it or feared the loss of federal business the administration suggested might be the consequence of refusing an illegal request.

Qwest has some of its long-haul fiber in Lafayette. There's now additional reason for LUS to drop AT&T as a supplier... and a very good reason to pick up Qwest. Between an LUS first mile and a Qwest backhaul contract we could get a least a little shelter from those who'd run roughshod over our liberty for a few bucks and a cozy relationship with the regulators.

Good for Leslie, Good for Qwest. ---Bad on all those other jerks.

Lagniappe: For fun--a Whitacre/Suess mashup in poem

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