Phone giants mum on spying
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
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
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,
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,
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
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