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Unholy Partnerships Between Telecoms & Government Spy Agencies: Have We Learned Nothing?

Jesselyn Radack, May 14, 2012

Have we learned nothing from the Bush-era warrantless wiretapping scandal that once threatened the near collapse of the Executive Branch?

WaPo reports on the latest merger of telecom and private industry in sharing customers' information with government agencies:

The Pentagon predicts that as many as 1,000 defense contractors may join a voluntary effort to share classified information on cyberthreats under an expansion of a first-ever initiative to protect computer networks.

After a pilot program that involved 36 contractors and three of the biggest U.S. Internet providers, the Obama administration approved a rule letting the Pentagon enlist all contractors and Internet providers with security clearances in the information exchange.

As I pointed out on Twitter: Government Spy Agencies + Telecoms = unholy partnership Americans ought to approach with the greatest skepticism.

Of course it is couched with nice-sounding goals like protecting "national security" and protecting us from vicious "cyber attacks," but approaches to reforming cyber-security too often include over-broad privacy-threatening measures. Privacy and civil liberties groups (like GAP) have repeatedly voiced their concerns with overreaching cyber-security measures, like the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011 (CISPA), which the House passed last month. The broad coalition of advocacy groups warned:

CISPA creates an exception to all privacy laws to permit companies to share our information with each other and with the government in the name of cybersecurity. Although a carefully-crafted information sharing program that strictly limits the information to be shared and includes robust privacy safeguards could be an effective approach to cybersecurity, CISPA lacks such protections for individual rights.

If the Bush-era National Security Agency (NSA) warrantless spying scandal - which according to recent whistleblowers' disclosures is far from resolved - it should be that privacy cannot be an afterthought then privacy telecom companies and the government decide to "team-up" for our own "security."

Considering what we've learned in just the past few months, Americans should be more than wary of partnerships between internet service providers and government. NSA whistleblower Bill Binney's (a client of mine) explosive disclosures of late signify the danger in allowing telecoms to hand our private information to the government in secret without court oversight.

Binney’s explosive disclosures over the past few weeks included:

  •  The first public description of Stellar Wind, the NSA’s massive domestic spying program, which has the capacity to intercept trillions of domestic electronic communications of Americans, including e-mails, phone calls, and internet activities.
  • That Stellar Wind gave the NSA warrantless access to telecommunications companies’ massive domestic and international billing records, amounting to an estimated “over a billion and a half calls a day.”
  • That “…after 9/11, all the wraps came off for NSA, and they decided to – between the White House and NSA and CIA – they decided to eliminate the protections on U.S. citizens and collect on, domestically. So they started collecting from a commercial – the one commercial company that I know of that participated provided over 300 – probably, on the average, about 320 million records of communication of a U.S. citizen to a U.S. citizen inside this country.” . . .
  • That since 9/11, the NSA has intercepted an estimated “between 15 and 20 trillion” electronic transactions.
  • That the scope of Stellar Wind is much larger than what was previously publicly known “Binney says Stellar Wind was far larger than has been publicly disclosed and included not just eavesdropping on domestic phone calls but the inspection of domestic email.”
  • That the patriotic-sounding “Terrorist Surveillance Program” was used as a cover for Stellar Wind: “But it was grouped with Stellar Wind and some other programs, so that they could give cover to it, talk about some programs, say they’re talking about the Terrorist Surveillance Program, but it was basically a group of programs, some of which they did not want to talk about.”

Have we learned nothing? George Santayana said it best:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.