It’s high noon for the Bush Administration’s program of wireless wiretapping. The administration is currently in secret negotiations with the House of Representatives over the issue of legal immunity for telecom companies that cooperated with legally dubious wiretaps. A new book by New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau — one of the reporters who broke the original story on warrantless wiretapping in 2005 — poses some tough questions for the administration and its conduct in the War on Terror. Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice explains how the Bush administration’s spying techniques are ineffectual as well as illegal, describing what the FBI labeled “Pizza Hut Leads”: terror leads gleaned from NSA call data that led to pizza deliverymen and other dead ends.
On February 12th, the U.S. Senate authorized a new version of the Protect America Act that gives legal ground to President Bush’s National Security Agency warrantless wiretapping program as well as retroactive immunity to telecom companies, such as AT&T and others, that assisted the National Security Agency in widespread electronic surveillance. After a secret session, the House of Representatives rejected telecom immunity on March 14th. Negotiations on the issue are ongoing, but it appears that a permanent wiretapping bill is imminent.
To paraphrase that great patriot Donald Rumsfeld: There are knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. The wiretapping program is a little like that. There are things we know and things we can only speculate about the wiretapping program. The number of customers affected by the surveillance remains secret, but the AT&T call-record database contains 1.88 trillion call records. Right now, the NSA program theoretically tracks only communication between foreign callers and callers in the US. Considering the complexity of global communication systems, we believe the distinction between domestic and foreign calls will be harder and harder to maintain, and the NSA wiretapping program has potential to become a full-fledged domestic spying regime.
“The NSA is basically having drag-net surveillance of all this activity, regardless of whether it’s domestic or international calls” said Rebecca Jeschke, media coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Some of the problems below are based on what we know about the program, and some are problems we can only speculate on. With that in mind, here’s a handy list for understanding some of the potential issues with the NSA program.
“Top 10 Reasons Why NSA Wiretapping is Bad For America”
10. Total integration of corporate and government power — By gathering telecom data, the executive branch has in effect enlisted communication companies as irregular officers in the War on Terror. “We can’t do this mission without their help,” the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told NPR. “Currently there is no retroactive liability protection for them. They’re being sued for billions of dollars.” If retroactive immunity goes through, it will usher in even more increased cooperation between corporations and the government in an age of the imperial presidency.
9. Phone companies aren’t your friends. Ever try breaking a cell-phone service contract? Go over your allotted minutes on your phone? Now you are going to paying these companies for the privilege of having them spy on you. The Senate isn’t your friend either: previous legislation would have authorized a minimum of $1000 per-person payouts for privacy violations by telecoms.
8. Say Bye Bye to Net Neutrality: Industry consolidation has created an unprecedented level of power in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of companies. Close cooperation between the government and telecom companies could spill over to the industry’s next big agenda item: net neutrality. The companies that control Internet data ‘pipes’ want legal authorization to give priority to certain higher-paying subscribers’ information, and to slow down other users’. Net Neutrality is hugely popular, and has become a rallying point for blogs like boingboing and presidential candidates.
7. Robert Hanssen, hackers, and spies — The NSA isn’t the only one after your personal data. It’s useful to any number of governments or marketers. “The security mechanisms in place are interested in protecting NSA, but what happens to the phone companies? This is a new linkage, and there are bad people in the intelligence agencies — think Robert Hanssen — this is a vulnerability that didn’t exist before, when you create new linkages you create new vulnerabilities” said Steven M. Bellovin, a professor of Computer Science at Columbia University. The NSA program creates a new problem of spying on the spy-ers — a situation that imperils everyone.
6. Watergate — There will be no need for break-ins for the purposes of political espionage. The government will have all that information on-hand. Just think about the dopey government contractors who rifled through Barack Obama’s passport files.
4. AT&T = Scooter Libby — Both have benefited from George Bush’s strange sense of justice. Dick Cheney’s perjuring Chief of Staff had his sentence commuted at the last minute by President Bush. Now that same President has used the threat of terrorism to push through post-hoc immunity for telecom companies that also broke the law and violated the public trust. “It’s a fact that Americans had their rights violated and now, by closing the courtroom door, they may be left with no recourse. The Senate failed us with this vote. It is a major step backward both for Americans’ privacy and the Constitution” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office in a press release.
3. A worse Internet — know what its like to try to go to the post office to get a letter sent in your lunch break? Imagine that on the internet. Marc Klein – a former AT&T employee who blew the whistle on Big Bell’s collaboration with the NSA – described a drop in digital signal quality on lines where NSA monitored data in an interview with PBS. The digital filter used to siphon off data from AT&T’s main-pipeline to NSA database acted like a ‘checkpoint’ that weakened data signals and made info loss more likely.
2. Pornography — Internet pornography is a venerable American tradition. The NSA program has expanded wiretapping to monitoring internet traffic. Do you want the government checking up on your solo-lovin’ habits as evidence of deviant/terroristic behavior?
1.It’s Facebook Beacon but more waaay invasive — A few months ago, Facebook created a privacy fiasco by posting user’s personal information on advertiser’s websites without permission. The problem was that Facebookers had to ‘opt out’ of the program – called “Facebook Beacon” – by going out of their way to say they didn’t want to participate. It seemed like people everywhere expressed outrage at Facebook’s privacy disaster, and the issue stuck around the media for days.. The program authorized by the Senate puts Facebook on steroids. NSA wiretapping combines phone records with social networking information to track who your friends are. “Facebook Beacon was one level of disclosure about your personal life, while information about who you emailed, what was in it, is far more intrusive” said Rebecca Jeschke from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
So why aren’t more people freaking out about this?