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Phone giants mum on spying

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.newsday.com/news/nationworld/nation/ny-chi-0512290166dec29,0,505879.story?coll=ny-leadnationalnews-headlines From the Chicago Tribune Phone giants
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 29, 2005

      From the Chicago Tribune

      Phone giants mum on spying
      In past, industry has cooperated with U.S.

      By Jon Van
      Tribune staff reporter

      December 29, 2005

      In the days following revelations that the Bush
      administration ordered the National Security Agency to
      spy on domestic telephone and Internet communications
      without a court order, one involved party has remained

      The nation's telephone giants--which control the data
      pipelines--have neither commented on nor denied their
      reported participation, nor have they reacted to the
      charge that they may have been complicit in violating
      privacy rights.

      But historically the telecom companies have cooperated
      with the government on wholesale wiretapping, and the
      Bush administration's anti-terrorism programs appear
      to be no exception.

      Without commenting directly on a classified topic,
      industry officials--when asked--suggested that they
      would not stand in the way of a request for help.

      "Our members have worked for years with law
      enforcement with an objective to preserve lawfully
      authorized surveillance," said Tom Amontree, a
      spokesman for the US Telecom Association, the industry
      group representing most phone companies. "We have no
      comment on national security matters."

      Added Eric Rabe, a spokesman for Verizon
      Communications Inc., one of the nation's phone giants:
      "We typically make law enforcement agencies get a
      court order. Our default is to cooperate, but we don't
      feel we should appropriate customer information
      lightly. We try to make sure what we do is in
      compliance with the law."

      During the Cold War, telecom organizations freely
      cooperated with government agencies regarding national
      security, and there seemed to be little worry about
      whether the requests were accompanied by court orders,
      one expert said.

      "In the 1960s, I worked for an international telex and
      telegram carrier in their Washington office," said Bob
      Atkinson, policy research director of the Columbia
      Institute for Tele-Information. "Every day a
      government agent stopped by to pick up copies of all
      telegrams that were sent overseas.

      "I asked about it once and was told we'd been making
      copies available to the government since World War II.

      "I think the practice only ended when people stopped
      sending telegrams."

      The Bush administration has been responding to critics
      since Saturday's disclosure that it directed the NSA
      to comb through huge volumes of telephone and Internet
      communications without first seeking court orders. The
      New York Times reported that since Sept. 11, 2001,
      unidentified American telecom companies have helped
      the government gain "backdoor access" to streams of
      communications flowing into and out of the U.S. in the
      search for terrorism suspects.

      A Bush spokesman, Trent Duffy, called the current use
      of wiretaps without the usual court authorization

      Rabe, of Verizon, said it's true that phone companies
      have always been willing to help government inquiries,
      though times have changed.

      In the Cold War era when there was great concern about
      Communists, "probably a lot of things went on," Rabe
      said, "but today we're more circumspect."

      Last year when agents of the U.S. music industry asked
      Verizon for information about its Internet
      subscribers, the phone giant refused and went to court
      to protect its customers' privacy.

      He noted that no telecom companies have been named in
      disclosures about NSA eavesdropping and declined to
      say if Verizon cooperates with that program. Bob
      Dwyer, a spokesman for AT&T Inc., another phone giant,
      said, "We don't comment on national security issues."

      The question of what the telecom companies can help
      find is difficult to answer because of the highly
      classified nature of the work. But experts say the
      computer technology that enables eavesdropping on a
      national scale may well generate enough data to
      overwhelm human agents.

      "Their idea of finding a needle in a haystack seems to
      involve getting more hay," said David Isenberg, a
      fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society
      at Harvard University.

      Isenberg said people who wish to evade government
      eavesdropping probably can do so by encrypting their

      For example, calls made using Internet telephony from
      the European-based Skype service are all encrypted,
      Isenberg said.

      While government agencies might decrypt targeted
      communications, it's not possible to do this with the
      vast amounts of information apparently targeted by the
      NSA, he said.

      The decentralized nature of the Internet and the
      multiplicity of ways to communicate further complicate
      the task of wholesale eavesdropping, said Daniel
      Berninger, a communications analyst with Tier 1

      By focusing on traffic that leaves the country,
      government agents can tap into optical fiber lines
      that are buried on the oceans and on radio signals
      bounced off satellites in space, Berninger said.

      This provides some identifiable "choke points" where
      communications enter and leave the country, he said,
      providing an easier task than trying to randomly
      monitor domestic traffic that flows on the Internet in
      all directions around the country, he said.

      Tapping into modern communications lines will yield
      billions of packets of voice and data all mixed
      together that is the electronic version of getting the
      slivers of paper that come out of a shredder,
      Berninger said.

      While there is equipment available to put the signals
      back together as e-mail, voice conversations,
      downloaded music and the like, "once you add
      encryption to the mix, the game's over," said

      The technique used to monitor vast amounts of
      communications is data mining, and sophisticated
      software programs are regularly used by private
      businesses as well as government agencies.

      Looking at data such as which phone numbers are called
      from which numbers can provide a lot of useful
      information, said Paul Bradley, a consultant with
      Apollo Data Technologies LLC, a Chicago-based data
      mining software firm.

      "A lot of research has been done into social
      networking," said Bradley. "When you use free instant
      messaging, the provider looks at who chats with whom
      to reconstruct social networks. They collect a ton of
      information. I'm sure government agencies do that."

      SPSS Inc., a Chicago-based software pioneer in data
      mining, provides programs to aid the Army in spotting
      hackers who are attempting to invade its computer
      systems and to help Homeland Security protect the
      nation's borders.

      Such software could determine when people use aliases
      by comparing several different conversations and the
      patterns of name use within each, said Bill Haffey,
      technical director of SPSS' public sector products.

      The system could even be programmed to send an agent
      an e-mail or call his cell phone to inform him once it
      discovers aliases that interest him, he said. Even if
      a security agency couldn't break an encryption used
      for messages, just noting the pattern of encryption
      could provide useful information, Haffey said.

      "There's no magic in any of this," said Jack Noonan,
      SPSS chief executive. "Everything we do with
      technology, you could do with humans. But sifting
      through billions of records could take all the humans
      in the world, taking years.

      "With this technology, you can do it quickly enough to
      make a difference."

      - - -

      Tapping in by land, by sea and from space

      One question arising from the recent revelation that
      the National Security Agency monitored phone calls by
      U.S. citizens without court approval is whether phone
      companies worked with the agency to monitor calls.
      Some ways the NSA might have tapped into

      With help from phone companies:


      One of the easiest ways to monitor phone conversations
      is to attach a wiretapping device to a telephone
      switch, which is what phone companies use to route
      calls. Calls can then be directly recorded and

      Without help from phone companies:


      Large fiber-optic cables laid across the ocean floor
      from the U.S. to other countries require a light
      signal carrying a voice message to be amplified along
      the way. To do this, the light signal is converted to
      an electronic digital signal, amplified and then
      converted back into a light signal. During this
      conversion, a U.S. ship could use special instruments
      to read the signal, yielding the messages within.


      - Many communication signals travel across land by
      being relayed from stations and towers. Because of the
      Earth's curvature, these signals may not all reach the
      relay station and can end up in space, where
      government satellites can pick them up.

      - Signals from overseas, beamed toward the U.S. from
      communications satellites, can be intercepted by large
      dishes used by the government.

      Sources: GlobalSecurity.org, Electronic Privacy
      Information Center
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