Senior Obama administration officials have secretly authorized the interception of communications carried on portions of networks operated by AT&T and other Internet service providers, a practice that might otherwise be illegal under federal wiretapping laws.
The secret legal authorization from the Justice Department originally applied to a cybersecurity pilot project in which the military monitored defense contractors’ Internet links. Since then, however, the program has been expanded by President Obama to cover all critical infrastructure sectors including energy, healthcare, and finance starting June 12.
“The Justice Department is helping private companies evade federal wiretap laws,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which obtained over 1,000 pages of internal government documents and provided them to CNET this week. “Alarm bells should be going off.”
Those documents show the National Security Agency and the Defense Department were deeply involved in pressing for the secret legal authorization, with NSA director Keith Alexander participating in some of the discussions personally. Despite initial reservations, including from industry participants, Justice Department attorneys eventually signed off on the project.
The Justice Department agreed to grant legal immunity to the participating network providers in the form of what participants in the confidential discussions refer to as “2511 letters,” a reference to the Wiretap Act codified at 18 USC 2511 in the federal statute books.
The Wiretap Act limits the ability of Internet providers to eavesdrop on network traffic except when monitoring is a “necessary incident” to providing the service or it takes place with a user’s “lawful consent.” An industry representative told CNET the 2511 letters provided legal immunity to the providers by agreeing not to prosecute for criminal violations of the Wiretap Act. It’s not clear how many 2511 letters were issued by the Justice Department.
Because it overrides all federal and state privacy laws, including the Wiretap Act, legislation called CISPA would formally authorize the program without the government resorting to 2511 letters. In other words, if CISPA, which the U.S. House of Representatives approved last week, becomes law, any data-sharing program would be placed on a solid legal footing. AT&T, Verizon, and wireless and cable providers have all written letters endorsing CISPA. [continue]