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17 December 2007, 11:08

New backdoors for US secret service found at US telcos

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The New York Times reports additional details about the controversial warrantless eavesdropping program being conducted by the US government and the National Security Agency (NSA). It seems that, contrary to initial speculation, such eavesdropping without a court order not only occurs in the context of the so-called war on terror. Indeed, since the 1990s the NSA has been working with national telecommunication providers to gather quantities of other information. Apparently, the connection data for telephone calls and e-mails from the United States to Latin America made by thousands of US citizens and other users has been collected and analyzed. Only in 2004 did a carrier refuse to provide customer data for fear of a breach of its customers' privacy and a public relations disaster.

But as other cases that have now become public show, the NSA wants to go much further. For instance, in 2001 telecommunications provider Qwest refused to provide the NSA access to the company's "most localized communications switches" - and that was even before the attacks on September 11. Had Qwest provided the NSA with this access, the agency would have been able to record entire telephone calls made locally. Calls made to foreign countries, usually the main focal point of such eavesdropping, would then have only made up a small fraction of the calls tapped. A spokesperson for the US government says, however, that eavesdropping would have been mainly restricted to foreigners even in that case.

Court documents also reveal that the NSA negotiated with representatives of AT&T for the duplication to the agency of traffic from an entire network center in Bedminster, New Jersey. According to a technician who was involved in the talks, the authorities wanted unrestricted access to communication, which they also wanted to archive for subsequent analysis. Other AT&T staff members say, however, that the project was only designed to improve internal communications systems at the NSA. In the same court case, Verizon stands accused of setting up a dedicated fiber-optic line from New Jersey to a large military facility in Quantico, Virginia that probably had contact to the NSA. A former employee of AT&T also stated that he had discovered a secret room reserved for the NSA in one of the provider's buildings in San Francisco.

For some time, it has been public knowledge that the NSA's eavesdropping in the "war on terror" made public two years ago was only the tip of the iceberg. But now, these details about the government's spying on its own citizens have been made public just as Congress is involved in a heated debate about a new version of the law that allows for eavesdropping on international telecommunications in the war on terror. The main bone of contention in the proposed revised version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is the extent to which private parties who assist such security of authorities as the NSA can do so with impunity. At present, civil rights organizations have taken major telecommunications providers to court in some 40 pending cases for participating in the NSA's eavesdropping.

Mike McConnell, the top intelligence official in the US, recently argued to Congress that the secret services need help from telcos in terror prevention. "Those in the private sector who stand by us in times of national security emergencies deserve thanks, not lawsuits." An attorney general, who agreed with McConnell, also said he was concerned that those who have provided the secret services with "whole-hearted help" might be reluctant to continue to do so if they do not receive legal protection.

Until recently, the NSA did not need much assistance from telcos when it wanted to listen in on telephone calls. To eavesdrop on international satellite communication, they could easily rely on their own Echelon system. But increasingly, data and telephone calls are not being transmitted through the air, but through landlines that investigators cannot tap that easily. No wonder that an NSA report of December 2000 told the newly elected Bush administration that authorities need a "powerful, permanent presence" in commercial communications networks. It seems that the agency knew even back then that its demands would impact privacy issues. (Stefan Krempl) /


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