Surveillance

When AT&T Profits Off Government Snooping, Shouldn't We Be Blaming the Government?

If we're not willing to rein in law enforcement, why should a telecom company?

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AT&T
John Angelillo/UPI/Newscom

It is easy to forget that Americans had actually been clued in to the likelihood of domestic telecommunication surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) long before Edward Snowden's leaks. Snowden helped us understand the massive scope and many particulars about which we were unaware and really put the issue before the public in a way we hadn't seen before.

But have we all forgotten Room 641A? That was the room in San Francisco where telecommunications company AT&T set up a system for the NSA to access the company's internet traffic for surveillance. It was exposed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a former AT&T technician all the way back in 2006, years before Snowden's leaks.

That background is relevant again as The Daily Beast has a story that puts AT&T's cooperation with federal authorities with surveillance in a whole new light. The reason why AT&T has been so helpful to the government in providing data about its customers (or anybody who communicates with their customers) is because it has found a way to monetize it. The Hemisphere Project was first revealed in 2013 by The New York Times. Hemisphere was a database system provided by AT&T to help law enforcement officials access data from any call that passes through their system (which means not just their own customers). This data was then used by the government for drug busts.

In order to participate in the program, government agencies were required by the contract to keep the existence of Hemisphere a secret and not reference it in any government document. This was not unlike the contracts we have been seeing from law enforcement agencies using "Stingray" devices used to track mobile phones. It's where we learned about "parallel construction," where law enforcement agencies kept this information they had received from surveillance secret, but used it to create a second chain of evidence that could be introduced in court cases. The Times story from 2013 mentioned that government paid AT&T for access to Hemisphere (and even for AT&T employees to embed with drug-fighting units to assist them), but the Times didn't know the cost.

Kenneth Lipp from The Daily Beast provides that information today, along with news that the Hemisphere program was not just for fighting drugs. It's being used to fight all kinds of crime. And while the government can force telecommunications companies like AT&T to provide data about users with a subpoena, it appears AT&T took this all to the next level, turning it all into a program that can be marketed, and more importantly, sold to law enforcement agencies. They found a way to make money off government demands for data. And if you think the prices were modest, you obviously know nothing about government contracts:

Sheriff and police departments pay from $100,000 to upward of $1 million a year or more for Hemisphere access. Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, made its inaugural payment to AT&T of $77,924 in 2007, according to a contract reviewed by The Daily Beast. Four years later, the county's Hemisphere bill had increased more than tenfold to $940,000.

"Did you see that movie Field of Dreams?" [American Civil Liberties Union tech policy analyst Christopher] Soghoian asked. "It's like that line, 'if you build it, they will come.' Once a company creates a huge surveillance apparatus like this and provides it to law enforcement, they then have to provide it whenever the government asks. They've developed this massive program and of course they're going to sell it to as many people as possible."

This reporting hits AT&T at a time when they're trying to plan a merger with Time Warner. There's a thought, one supposes, that this either might or should hurt AT&T's chances there, but given that this program is in full cooperation with the very federal government that has authority to approve or deny the merger, it seems unlikely that whether this particular behavior is "good for the consumer" is going to influence the Department of Justice's decision whether to intervene.

On the one hand, this certainly makes it appear as though AT&T has little concern about its customers' privacy. On the other hand, AT&T has no choice but to cooperate when it receives subpoenas from law enforcement anyway. That's the problem with the current legal interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that data held by third parties (like telecom and internet companies) doesn't require warrants to access but simple subpoenas. As requests for data from law enforcement officials have skyrocketed, it would be eminently logical for a company like AT&T to create a program to make it easier for themselves to comply with the parade of government orders. And to find a way to make money off these demands, well it's preferable to seeing companies actually lose revenue due to the costs of complying with these subpoenas.

In all, it feels a bit like people want to hold AT&T accountable for not more powerfully resisting the surveillance and data-collecting authority of our own government. In that, it's reminiscent of a situation earlier in October where the ACLU was demanding social media companies be more accountable for how law enforcement uses its tools to engage in surveillance. I noted then: "It feels like an acknowledgment that we cannot expect our police to respect our privacy and we can't expect that they will be held accountable for violations. Instead the ACLU is demanding that these companies employ more resources, both human and technological, to keep authorities at bay."

The same holds true here. Obviously there's something creepy about AT&T turning law enforcement demands for our data into an opportunity to earn money. But given the kinds of pressure and intimidation the federal government has brought to bear against these companies in order to force cooperation, consider what options AT&T actually had. Remember Lavabit? Remember Qwest? AT&T is essentially the company the federal government made it become. Imagine them trying to get permission for this merger with Time Warner if they hadn't been so cooperative with the federal government with surveillance.

And that capitulation is a reminder here about who is calling the shots. The government will not be considering this merger on the basis of whether it serves the "consumer interest," though certainly that's what we'll be told. The merger will be decided on the basis on whether it's in the government's interest. AT&T at least understands that.

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  1. Nope. It’s all the evil corporations using their evil corporate power to force the government into this.

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    3. what choice do our poor angelic elected officials have? The corporations have guns and tanks and… oh wait…

    4. “It’s all the evil corporations using their evil corporate power to force the government into this.” . . . until the day the Democrats lose the White House. THEN its the government’s fault also.

  2. “provides that information today, along with news that the Hemisphere program was not just for fighting drugs.”

    Well, that’s a relief.

  3. OT repost:

    OT:

    The daily Podesta dump seems to have a bona fide smoking gun in it, with Podesta and Cheryl Mills discussing Obama’s lies about not knowing Hillary was using a private email account:

    http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/247278/

    Punchline: Cheryl Mills telling Podesta “we need to clean this up – he has emails from her – they do not say state.gov.”

    Wikileaks link:

    http://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/31077

    1. How is that a smoking gun exactly?

      1. Yeah, Obama isn’t running for office.

        1. I’m sure Hugh would doubt that it’s a smoking gun even if Obama was running for office. Hugh is very reliable.

          1. All the possibilities for an alternate universe quantum tunneler and you use it to verify that?

            1. It’s called a bench test. We needed something unimportant to verify with.

        2. The closest part to being a smoking gun is related to Cheryl Mills, but even then – any lawyer could weasel out of “we need to clean this up.” Especially when the people investigating and prosecuting are looking for reasons not to find any evidence.

      2. How is it a smoking gun?

        (a) Mills knew immediately that Obama was lying and that he had email traffic with a non-.gov address. For her to know this off the top of her head shows that it was known/discussed before it blew up in the papers.

        (b) “clean this up”, in the context of what she did next (illegally sequester emails, illegally give them to a law firm, illegally delete many emails) proves up intent. She said we have to “clean up” the emails to Obama with the non-.gov address, and then went on to do exactly that by violating numerous laws. Intent doesn’t have to be implied when its in writing.

        1. To expand a little bit:

          The original claim was that the emails were deleted solely to remove personal emails, and since that was their “intent”, there was no criminal violation.

          The Podesta dump proves, with contemporaneous evidence, that was not their intent. That their intent was actually to remove emails that were not personal, and that were subject to FOIA, for purely political reasons or to obstruct justice.

          1. The Podesta dump proves, with contemporaneous evidence, that was not their intent. That their intent was actually to remove emails that were not personal, and that were subject to FOIA, for purely political reasons or to obstruct justice.

            Dude, you’re all out there still thinking laws and evidence and stuff. That stupid shit does not apply in this situation. Sooner you can figure that out, sooner you’re Ready for Hillary.

            Get with the program.

            1. so, if I play dumb and DON”T figure this out, does that mean I’m NOT ready for Hitlery? And if I’m not ready for it, will it stay away, or, better yet, disappear? That would be GOOD NEWS indeed.

        2. RC – we had emails from Hillary where she stated why she didn’t want to use a .gov email. Nothing short of a confession is going to be accepted as evidence of intent here no matter how glaring.

        3. So they’re definitely going to put Hillary away then, right? Do you think her trial will wrap up before the election is over so she can watch the inauguration ceremony from prison?

          1. An indictment in the next week would end her campaign. The media is in ignore status for any of this stuff. They are running stories about Georgia being a swing state, millions of absentee voters are voting for Hillary and what Hillary’s team to assume the White is shaping up. Why doesn’t she have her cabinet picked, if she is so sure that she will win? She knows that she will lose. Trump is not sure that he will win.

            Obama is going to pardon her when she loses the election.

            1. An indictment in the next week would end her campaign.

              Hasn’t hindered some other campaigns in the past.

              If she were indicted (which she will not be), I bet she’d still win.

              1. You might be right about any indictment not ending her campaign. Her supporters are voting for her no matter what.

                Obama was a guaranteed winner and he still get a landslide. Hillary does not have anywhere near as many people voting for her. Trump probably does not have as many Republicans voting for him as McCain and Romney but he has new voters into the mix.

                1. Obama was a guaranteed winner and he still did not get a landslide.

        4. “I wasn’t lying, I just never noticed the emails did not say state.gov.” Bullet dodged.

          “I meant clean it up as in get our talking points straight, because people will accuse O of lying. You know how politics is.”

    2. I mean, anyone with a brain already knew he was lying, but this just really spells it out for those too stupid.

      But it’s very hard to claim the executive branch was fit to investigate this independently in any capacity when the president himself would have been caught up in the investigation inevitably. If Hillary had been charged, how the hell do you keep Obama clean? It doesn’t happen. Obama had some real self-interest in protecting Hillary and it puts his public statements that she did nothing wrong in a whole new context.

      But the emails here aren’t smoking gun proof of that.

      1. If Hillary had been charged, how the hell do you keep Obama clean? It doesn’t happen. Obama had some real self-interest in protecting Hillary and it puts his public statements that she did nothing wrong in a whole new context.

        Which is the main reason why I never thought the email (fake /progtard) scandal was ever going to anywhere. It would have implicated literally anyone in the government – up to and including the president himself – that she ever sent email to.

        That’s an awful lot of “too big to jail” people.

        1. The great bailout of 2016!

    3. The good people of America don’t care about it. The end.

      1. If you care about it, you are “irredeemable”.

        1. deplorable too

      2. So sayeth the media.

    4. Punchline: Cheryl Mills telling Podesta “we need to clean this up – he has emails from her – they do not say state.gov.”

      No shit. Anyone with half a brain and who’s ever received an email should have known Obama was lying through his teeth.

  4. That’s the problem with the current legal interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that data held by third parties (like telecom and internet companies) doesn’t require warrants to access but simple subpoenas.

    If you own stock in the telecoms, are they still considered third party? #loophole

    1. – short = from what i can tell, one of the the ‘sources’ O’keefe used to substantiate DNC rabble-rousing/bird-dogging/shit-starting @ Trump events… was someone who had worked for Breitbart doing the same @ Rubio events – which may or may not have been consistent with DNC goals to shepherd a loser like Trump into the nomination.

      I can’t really make heads or tails of it because i never gave the initial stories much scrutiny, but from what i can tell it seems to be a combination of “There are no good guys here” and some sort of Media Tu Quoque… “everybody does it!” – thing to neutralize the Veritas charges.

      1. The entire Politico story is incredibly shoddy reporting.
        1. It is based on a single source.
        2. It wants to create the impression O’Keefe got his video because Aaron Black is a fraud
        3. By extension, the entire PAC is being called frauds. They are accused of wanting to help Trump, basically.
        4. Aaron Black wasn’t the only guy caught on video saying shady shit
        5. The ‘source’ who provides info doesn’t really say anything besides that Black/Breitbart were friendly and mutually hated Marco Rubio.

        It’s a piece meant to cast aspersions on O’Keefe’s work which isn’t hard to do with Politico’s audience. But there’s really no ‘there’ there.

        1. It’s Politico. Also, the story, as you have pointed out is weak, even if true.

        2. #3They are accused of wanting to help Trump, basically.

          #5 The ‘source’ who provides info doesn’t really say anything besides that Black/Breitbart were friendly and mutually hated Marco Rubio.

          the story does mention that there was some shared agenda between both the Bbart crew and the DNC. It shouldn’t be surprising that some professional-campaign-ratfucker might have worked for both groups

          Rubio was likely a common foe for both liberals and Breitbart. As hacked WikiLeaks emails from the Clinton campaign recently revealed, the Clinton campaign feared going up against Rubio in the general election

          But it seems to be attempted as a “gotcha” story to try and neutralize the Veritas charges.

          All i’m saying (for sake of amusement) is that I bet Reason will finally decide its something worth at least ‘acknowledging’ now. Also – i bet this angle gets press @ most of the major media today , at least in their hack-blogs. (looking at you, Phil Bump)

      2. I’m just trying to figure out what locker room talk is ok, and what locker room talk isn’t.

        1. Good = ‘She doesn’t look fat in that dress’

          Bad = ‘Grab it by the pussy!’

      3. from what i can tell, one of the the ‘sources’ O’keefe used to substantiate DNC rabble-rousing/bird-dogging/shit-starting @ Trump events… was someone who had worked for Breitbart doing the same @ Rubio events – which may or may not have been consistent with DNC goals to shepherd a loser like Trump into the nomination.

        Yeah, all this really proves is that the source O’Keefe used was apparently willing to work for just about anyone, and further substantiates the speculation that the DNC was doing everything they could to make sure Trump got the nomination because they felt like he would be the easiest to beat in the general election With Carson and Cruz also on their list of preferred opponents – which R candidates got the lion’s share of media exposure again?

    2. So basically they’re saying that Breitbart coordinated with progressives to take out a common enemy?

      1. Yes. Based on a single anonymous source, no less.

  5. But have we all forgotten Room 641A?

    Nope. This was the room that allowed Democrats to spin domestic surveillance into a problem with Corporations.

  6. I’m not even sold on the whole idea that “requiring warrants” will magically rein everything in. Judges pretty much just rubber stamp all warrant requests anyway, and cops shop around the very few who don’t.

    1. This was supposed to be another one of those “checks” and/or “balances” but instead just devolved into outright collusion between the executive & judicial.

    2. “Judges pretty much just rubber stamp all warrant requests anyway”
      It would take a while for a judge to rubber stamp 300+ million warrants

      1. Unexpected welcome side effect of the Republican Senate not approving judicial nominees in a speedy manner.

  7. The government will not be considering this merger on the basis of whether it serves the “consumer interest,” though certainly that’s what we’ll be told. The merger will be decided on the basis on whether it’s in the government’s interest.

    Geez, cynical much?

    1. “consumer interest”

      Well, of course, giant mergers that stifle competition and limit consumer choice is always good for consumers.

      I think that we can be safe in making the following translation:

      “consumer interest” = “more good old cronyism to benefit we ruling class”

    2. Not cynical enough.

      In a related note – I keep seeing mentions of Hillary already strategizing for her first hundred days and there’s speculation about who will fill what cabinet posts. The main one I wanna know is who her AG will be. Given that the AG’s main job will be keeping Hillary out of jail, would she trust Bill enough to appoint him the way JFK appointed his brother? Does the AG necessarily have to be a lawyer in good standing? Or a lawyer at all – can she appoint Huma? Who’s the pig-fucking sleaziest lawyer in DC? That’s the next AG.

      1. The main one I wanna know is who her AG will be.

        Pretty sure its been promised to Lynch.

        http://dailycaller.com/2016/07…..y-general/

        1. Was that what the conversation on the tarmac was about? I asssumed Bill was showing her pictures of her mother handcuffed to a steampipe in a basement and holding up a copy of that day’s morning newspaper.

        2. Pretty sure its been promised to Lynch.

          Considering Lynch did her a favor on the whole “email thing,” I think it’s a safe bet that’s the quid pro quo.

  8. I’m just starting to learn about Linux myself, but I think we libertarians should really start learning about how to protect our privacy and communications from the government.

    I”m really into Qubes, and I’m just learning about Whonix.

    “The Workstation VM runs user applications. It is connected only to the internal virtual LAN, and can directly communicate only with the Gateway, which forces all traffic coming from the Workstation to pass through the Tor network. The Workstation VM can “see” only IP addresses on the Internal LAN, which are the same in every Whonix installation.

    User applications therefore have no knowledge of the user’s “real” IP address, nor do they have access to any information about the physical hardware.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whonix

    Average libertarians should know about this stuff like we know about guns, the commerce clause, cannabis, punk rock, and science fiction.

    And chicks. Obviously, we libertarians know all about chicks. That’s why they find us irresistible.

    1. You linked to a punk rock video a while back.

      It’s easily the worst thing I’ve ever heard. Easily. I closed my garage door and fired off a few blanks just to make my ears ring.

      1. I’ve been firing blanks for years! Who’s your urologist?

      2. Which song was that? I link to punk rawk a lot!

        You can’t be from the Beach Cities and not dig punk rock.

        From Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Pennywise, Prop 13 and beyond.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08N0ssoYHPw

        1. I know Pennywise. Grew up with Fletcher’s cousin.

          You linked to some guy who looked and sounded like Matthew Lesko, only more annoying.

          1. I’m thinking you’re thinking Atari Teenage Riot?

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GR_kjdr7e0Y

            People hate digital hardcore even more than industrial.

            For what it’s worth, here they are instigating a riot by the police.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eCzYOvGOxs

          2. I should add their one big budget / scifi video for Revolution Action

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkb3r9filcM

            I don’t know of anybody else calling themselves digital hardcore anymore–except Akira Death. And Japanese underground is weirder than Japanese porn.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Y75QuaHsB0

      3. Your garage door works? Not punk.

      4. “You linked to a punk rock video a while back.”

        If I’m not mistaken, it was one of my all-time favorites, this one:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faQZOKGW5eA

        San Diego’s own Battalion of Saints!

        Probably the first hardcore band I ever heard. I was just heading to Junior High in San Diego at the time, when this was all blowing up for the first time. We were there for the Dad unit’s work for a year from DC. They were a local band doing all ages shows. I had some older friends/girlfriends who took me to this show–and I just went apeshit.

        That’s a great jam. It’s always on my iPod for the five mile run–about four miles in.

        1. No, you linked to something live. Supposedly a libertarian guy.

    2. Don’t get too sucked in to using technology alone to mask your communications or your identity. I’m not saying ignore it, but there are lots of people who’ve been burned because they thought the technology alone would protect them.

      1. I”m sure that’s true.

        What I’m trying to say here is that the time to learn about this stuff isn’t after the government starts really cracking down. By then, it’ll be too late.

        There are things we can do to protect ourselves. We’re not at the mercy of politicians to protect us.

        Gun rights people learn how to use their firearms to protect themselves in case the police can’t stop an intruder from breaking in, or there’s a riot, or an authoritarian government takes over. They’re prepared.

        First Amendment stuff should be the same way. And I think the main reason why the government didn’t monitor our communications in the past wasn’t because of the law but because before it was technologically impossible and prohibitively expensive. It’s getting easier and cheaper to monitor us all the time. That isn’t about to get better.

        1. Rule #1 You do not talk about Fight Club.
          Rule #2 You do not talk about Fight Club.
          Rule #3 Never ever buy guns or gun equipment with a credit card. Pay cash or use gift card. One less thing they can keep track of.

    3. I subscribe to Soldier of Fortran magazine and hire jack-leg crackers out of the want ads in the back to procur zombie machines for all my nefarious web-based operations. Like spamming the Reason comment boards with with work-from-home scams. Or IMing my wife to ask if we’re running low on bread. Anything the government might take an unhealthy interest in.

      1. Anything the government might take an unhealthy interest in.

        In other words, everything?

  9. Government is glorious and great and can do wrong. AT&T is an EVUL PROFITZ SEAKING PRIVATE KKKORPORAYSHUN!11!!1!!!!! /progtard

  10. the story is that AT&T is selling a surveillance package that even the government doesn’t have.

    This is well beyond grudgingly cooperating with the government. There is a reason that Sprint and Verizon delete data after 12-18 months. It is to prevent themselves from getting sucked into the surveillance system. Well, assuming they actually delete the data…

    So, yes, government is bad, but in many ways we rely on private enterprise as a check on government power. Such as when Apple helps us encrypt our phones and tells the FBI to fuck off.

    1. AT&T’s strategy is to leave its competitors in the dust because of crony capitalism.

  11. “In all, it feels a bit like people want to hold AT&T accountable for not more powerfully resisting the surveillance and data-collecting authority of our own government”

    Yes I want to hold them accountable. “Just following orders” is not an acceptable excuse.

  12. If we’re not willing to rein in law enforcement, why should a telecom company?

    Because the telcos have no qualified immunity and vast funds for appropriation justice. Plus, everyone hates them already – so kind of a bonus there.

    -American Trial Lawyers Association

    1. Indeed, there is nothing qualified about telecom immunity.

  13. So the media are not going to report the extent of Hillary’s corruption, and she might get elected.

    Is there enough meat on this bones for the Republicans to start impeachment hearings the day after inauguration?

    That might keep things amusing till spring arrives.

  14. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, blaming them both seems fair to me.

  15. How does the following strike readers. A Pox On All Of The Above Mentioned. By the way, John Q. Public doesn’t come out looking especially good either, in my opinion.

  16. I wonder.. on WHAT basis do FedGov require their “Mother May I” for AT&T and Time/Warner to merge?

    Don’t they remember the definition of fascism? Government control of private means of production? If “permission” is required before two entities can complete a mutually desired merger, is that not government CONTROL? The power of Yes/No is control.

  17. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….

    …….. http://www.jobprofit9.com

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