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Friday, April 21, 2006

ATT: Can we hear you now? (You'd better believe it)

Richard Stiennon, blogging over at ZDNet, had a chilling conversation with an anonymous AT&T engineer, on the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed against that company by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on January 31. EFF's lawsuit accuses AT&T of
violating the law and the privacy of its customers by collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) in its massive and illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans' communications.
EFF lays out the details of its allegations:

The lawsuit alleges that AT&T Corp. has opened its key telecommunications facilities and databases to direct access by the NSA and/or other government agencies, thereby disclosing to the government the contents of its customers' communications as well as detailed communications records about millions of its customers, including the lawsuit's class members.

The lawsuit also alleges that AT&T has given the government unfettered access to its over 300 terabyte "Daytona" database of caller information -- one of the largest databases in the world. Moreover, by opening its network and databases to wholesale surveillance by the NSA, EFF alleges that AT&T has violated the privacy of its customers and the people they call and email, as well as broken longstanding communications privacy laws.

The lawsuit also alleges that AT&T continues to assist the government in its secret surveillance of millions of Americans. EFF, on behalf of a nationwide class of AT&T customers, is suing to stop this illegal conduct and hold AT&T responsible for its illegal collaboration in the government's domestic spying program, which has violated the law and damaged the fundamental freedoms of the American public.

In its filings, EFF accuses AT&T of participating in

a secret and illegal government program to intercept and analyze vast quantities of Americans’ telephone and Internet communications, surveillance done without the authorization of a court and in violation of federal electronic surveillance and telecommunications statues, as well as the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Based on these allegations, Stiennon made contact with the engineer from AT&T, and with the help of a colleague, took every precaution to ensure the engineer's anonymity:
Barrett Lyon and I resort to an air-gap technique to interview an engineer at ATT about the massive funneling of data and voice traffic into the NSA’s analysis centers. At first we looked into doing the interview directly with this guy, who we call Deep Packet, and masking his voice with digital effects. When we realized just what sort of processing power the NSA has available to them we decided that was not good enough to protect our source. Any digital effects could be reversed. So I got Barrett on the phone and he relayed my questions to Deep Packet via IRC and read his responses back to me.

As Stiennon says, "those responses were chilling." Deep Packet, he says, "gives a sense of an insider who at first did not believe the press reports but quickly learned that not only were they true but it went deeper."

According to Deep Packet ATT maintains numerous facilities that host very expensive Juniper routers for this project. As far as he knows there is no direct contract with the NSA. In other words ATT is paying for all of this. He feels that the reward is favorable treatment when ATT is bidding on less clandestine government contracts.

According to Deep Packet these Juniper routers have specially designed cards in them to shunt ALL OF THE TRAFFIC from ATT peering points to NSA analysis centers around the country. Peering traffic means not just traffic that begins and ends on ATT’s network but any traffic from networks that ATT has peering arrangements with. A quick look here indicates that is just about… everything.

Now, the EFF claims that ATT handles 300 million voice calls and 4,000 terabytes PER DAY of traffic. I tried to get a feel for whether ATT had enough storage space to actually archive all of that info. Deep Packet says there is A LOT of storage associated with this project. I still doubt it is enough. But maybe enough to grab every conversation that involves airplanes, flight school, anthrax, and Allah.
To listen to a podcast of the actual interview, click here for a downloadable mp3 file.

I know I'm not the first to say this, but this, for me, is a tough issue on which to stake out an opinion. On the one hand, I'm a cranky and cantankerous libertarian who finds the idea of the NSA tapping into, or data mining, the conversations and emails of American citizens abhorrent. I'm a privacy nut who uses encryption in my emails, an NSA-level secure file shredder program to delete computer files, and various programs to hide or disguise my IP address while I'm online. So I should be completely opposed to President Bush, without any judicial oversight, ordering the NSA to "spy on" US citizens, and to AT&T and other companies that voluntarily assist the NSA's efforts.

But then there's that pesky "other hand." The other hand says that, cliched though it may be, 9/11 really did change everything, and we are at war with people who will stop at nothing in their attempts to kill or subjugate us, and if the worst thing most of us have to deal with is the government taking a "key word" peek at our emails or phone conversations, so be it. Better that than another well-coordinated terrorist attack on America.

I think what bothers me the most is not that this data mining, or wiretapping, or whatever you want to call it, is going on now: it's the sense that once you open this Pandora's box of government intrusion, it becomes really tough - if not impossible - to close it back up. And conversely, it becomes much easier for the government to lift the lid a little bit more to get a bigger peek inside, and then a little bit more because there's a shadow over that one spot, and then just a little bit more for reasons we can't tell you right now but trust us they're important, until finally the top is completely off the box because it really is best that the government see everything, and if you haven't done anything wrong you've got nothing to worry about, and raising your voice in opposition to this obviously means that you've got something to hide, so we better take an extra close look at you, maybe in private somewhere.

This is only one of the many reasons I'm up all night. Always remember: you're not paranoid if the black helicpoters really are outside your window.

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