Feds Upset That Telecoms Resist Surveillance Efforts

You have to wonder if John Galt his own self has taken the helm at the Telecommunications Industry Association.


Spy vs Spy

Two oddly encouraging news items appeared in the last couple of days, both suggesting that telecommunications companies are dragging their feet or otherwise resisting when it comes to law-enforcement requests for assistance with electronic surveillance. In an age when we've become accustomed to big-business collaboration with the dark forces of nosy, presumptuous officialdom, this is nothing less than astonishing. Add to that the fact that telecoms have been immunized from legal liability for helping the government in its eavesdropping efforts, and you have to wonder if John Galt his own self has taken the helm at the Telecommunications Industry Association.

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is demanding the return of documents released a year ago in compiance with a freedom of information request. Says EFF:

It started a year ago when ICE produced records in response to one of our Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The records show that companies like Comcast, Cricket Communications, Metro PCS, Southern Linc Wireless, and T-Mobile either pushed back on or failed to comply with specific requests for information on their customers. For example, in response to one of ICE's pen register/trap and trace orders, Southern Linc said it "did not like the wording of [the] order" and "would not give 'real time' ping location for [the] phone, [it] would only give 1 hour old history." ICE also reported that it experienced "technical issues . . . on almost a daily basis" trying to get data on a suspect from Cricket Communications." And Comcast gave ICE the runaround for a month before it turned over IP log history.

These records are the first we've received in response to our FOIA litigation that actually provide some of the information we asked for—specific examples of problems federal agents have faced getting companies to comply with communications surveillance orders. We filed this request two years ago after the New York Times reported that the FBI and other agencies were pushing Congress to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to require companies like Blackberry, Skype and Google to build back doors into their systems. And ICE should be commended for releasing these records with only minimal redactions.

Intrigued by what it had found, EFF requested more documents.

It took ICE almost a year to get back to us on the narrowed request, and when it did, its response was frustrating. Not only did the agency decide that it would still be too burdensome to conduct any kind of a search for similar records, but ICE also told us it never should have turned over the original records in the first place—and it wanted them back.

ICE demanded the return of records that had been widely published and entered into publicly available court records — something about horses and barn doors comes to mind, but the federal agency wanted it documents back, anyway. Why? EFF speculates that ICE is just screwing with the organization and trying to make life difficult. But it could also be that the feds are a little embarrassed by the degree to which their supposed friends in the telecommunications industry aren't playing nice. One document published by EFF shows ICE officials plaintively complaining that Cricket Communications gave them little help, and lots of technical difficulties over the course of months during a surveillance opertion, and when agents complained, "most emails and phone calls regarding the issue were not returned."

Unhappy federal officials

That the issue of noncompliance with surveillance requests hasn't changed much in the last year is strongly suggested by a CNet report written by Declan McCullagh. Writes McCullagh:

The FBI has tried to bolster its case for expanded Internet surveillance powers by gathering finger-pointing examples of how communications companies have stymied government agencies, CNET has learned.

An internal Homeland Security report shows that a working group convened by an FBI office in Chantilly, Va. requested details about "investigations have been negatively impacted" by companies' delays, partial compliance, or inability to comply with police surveillance requests.

The FBI also points to Cricket for not playing nice, by the way, so consider that as you arrange to meet your telecommunications needs. Cricket seems to have a special and underappreciated talent for obstructionism when it comes to working with the feds to spy on customers.

McCullagh continues:

The information collection is part of the FBI's controversial effort, known internally as "Going Dark," aimed in part at convincing Congress to rewrite federal wiretapping law to require Internet companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to build in back doors for government surveillance. CNET reported in May that the FBI has asked tech companies not to oppose the plan.

Basically, the feds aren't happy with the cooperation they're (not) getting, and so want to build technical backdoors into the telecommunications system so they can wiretap directly, without asking for the industry's assistance.

I wrote last week about how a federal judge found the government's "Going Dark" surveillance plans a bit .. mind-boggling.

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  1. Cricket seems to have a special and underappreciated talent for obstructionism when it comes to working with the feds to spy on customers.

    You win one Internetz for this bon mot. =)

  2. My gut feel is that the feds are getting the same quality level of customer service the rest of us receive from our cell phone & telecom providers, only kicked down a notch because they aren’t actually paying teh bills.

    1. This.

      See my comment below too.

      Getting competent data out of telcos is like pulling teeth, only more painful.

      1. I’m just basing this on my experience with Verizon trying to get all the pages of a 24 page bill. That took 9 months, and the only reason I had any leverage is because I wouldn’t pay them until I got all 24 pages of it. I can only imagine what that would have been like if they had no real reason to listen to me.

        1. Verizon is the worst telecom company I’ve ever had to deal with. At least the little local phone companies will at least pretend to care, Verizon won’t even do that.

          1. I will use two tin cans and a string before I go back to Verizon.

          2. I have no love lost for telcos. I’ve been lied to by every RBOC when it comes to things like circuit installation due dates.

            In fairness though, Verizon has gone to bat in court to protect the privacy of their Internet users to a greater degree that almost any other U.S. ISP. It’s purely for cost and convenience reasons, I’m sure, but I’ll take it where I can get it.

    2. So long as non-compliance is the result, I don’t care if my cell company’s people are eating Cheetos and watching porn.

  3. I have the same problem with clients.

    And those are people PAYING me to do stuff for them. Big shocker that ICE cant get stuff out of them correctly.

    Oh, and some of these clients have been telcos.

  4. This is the mode that the collapse of the United States Government will take. People will stop complying with its directives.

    As inflation starts to bite into civil servants’ paychecks, and they have to look to graft or side businesses for income, civil servants will have less time and energy to beat people into complying with their dictats. More people will dare to flout the government, and it will grow less able to impose its will, until eventually, it will structurally fail, much like a building whose support beams have been eaten away by running water.

    1. So are we Italian or Greek now?

  5. to require Internet companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to build in back doors for government surveillance.

    Any company that does that can expect me to promptly quit using their services and move my business to a less-toadying competitor.

    1. Except when “Net Neutrality” is passed and shockingly includes a requirement to comply with government surveillance and backdoors. (Note that currently, Internet companies are exempt from CALEA the same way that they’re exempt from other laws.)

      1. Yeah, well, what do you think will be the response of the Board of Directors of Facebook and Google if about half of customers cancel service over them rolling over to the feds like this?

        Are the feds going to storm their offices and rewrite their operating systems software?

        Are these boards going to discreetly tell the feds to fuck off, and maybe complain to their congressional representatives and hint that their campaign contributions might abruptly cease?

        1. IMO they are still way too compliant and helpful. All the companies eventually roll over, no matter the noise Facebook, Google, et al makes. And since they all do, there’s no commercial US choice for the customer currently

          docs mirrored from:


          Not an outright backdoor for Windows, but for example, an internals design, unpublicized look at signatures bitlocker uses, recovery key (finding the .bek file), given to law enforcement

        2. Yes, if a law doesn’t get passed. But if we don’t have a choice because it’s part of some Net Neutrality regulation, they’ll go along.

          They go along too much as it is, but competition makes it somewhat better.

    2. And if they are required not to reveal that they have done this?

      One of the reasons I got out of business is the whole bit of being required to inform, and not even being able to let anyone know you’re being required to do it. I know someone who was served a warrant, then arrested for taking it to her lawyer. She was released, but they still haven’t decided if she’s going to have to stand trial.

  6. The Founders never included digital privacy with the enumerated rights, and even if they did, this is for the children.

    1. Sure they did.

      Amendment #9.

      1. I think FoE was being sarcastic. You might want to have your sarcasm-ometer recalibrated.

        1. I caught the sarcasm, so its working fine.

          I decided to play along.

          See, the ninth amendment doesnt technically enumerate anything.

  7. from a few months ago:…

    Nicholas Merrill is planning to revolutionize online privacy with a concept as simple as it is ingenious: a telecommunications provider designed from its inception to shield its customers from surveillance.

    The ISP would not merely employ every technological means at its disposal, including encryption and limited logging, to protect its customers. It would also — and in practice this is likely more important — challenge government surveillance demands of dubious legality or constitutionality.

    “The idea that we are working on is to not be capable of complying” with requests from the FBI for stored e-mail and similar demands, Merrill says.

    1. I’m rooting for the Calyx folks, but when I look at the bios of the principals, they seem more like NGO types and less like carrier types. I’m not sure there’s an NGO in the world with the stomach to raise the capex necessary to build a credible carrier of any sort.

      If you’re just going to become an MVNO and re-sell someone else’s network with crypto on top, it’s more likely, but then you might as well just use something like Phil Zimmerman’s new project, Silent Circle.

      Anyone who holds themselves out as a “carrier” in the privacy context is courting disaster. It’s probably a one line change to the CALEA to rope them in.

  8. The government will fix this by requiring individual licensing to work in telco.

  9. This is old news.
    I remember back in college ten years or so ago some guy was talking about how his father worked at some telecommunications company and how all physical hardware had to have a jack built right into it so the government could just plug in and listen whenever they pleased.

    “Warrant? How quaint. You want us to shut you down? That’s what I thought.”

  10. Wait, wut? There are people who are not using Tor and PGP for sensitive information?

  11. One of the more memorable moments of my career was sitting in the “digital telephony” hearings and listening to the FBI folks suggesting ways they could make it easier for the carriers to implement their desired system. The Bureau volunteered that they could always send techs to the carriers’ points-of-presence (where switching equipment is located.”

    It was all I could do to avoid bursting out in laughter when one of the representatives from the “big 3” said “It’ll be a cold day in hell before we let you into our POPs.”

  12. “the feds aren’t happy with the cooperation they’re (not) getting, and so want to build technical backdoors into the telecommunications system so they can wiretap directly, without asking for the industry’s assistance.”

    Snowden’s reports show that the feds got lots of cooperation, and also have build in technical backdoors. Seems like you can’t trust any part of the American government.

    Is Obama’s desire to declare war (sorry, not-war) on Syria an attempt at diverting attention away from the surveillance scandal? It’s not the first time a president has used the tactic of uniting the country against a foreign enemy…

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