As the President decides to change privacy laws he doesn't like...
Buried under the roar of the media's obsession with Apple's looming tablet computer this week was a tiny little story about an agency you might have heard about (the FBI) repeatedly breaking the law by faking terrorism emergencies in order to get phone customer data
. According to the Washington Post
, the FBI illegally collected more than 2,000 U.S. telephone call records between 2002 and 2006 "by invoking terrorism emergencies that did not exist." The adherence to law eventually became so slack, that requests for private user data devolved to the point where even one request was made by Post It Note
Interestingly, two additional elements of the story have come to light as the week rolled on. One, Wired News
notes that a few weeks ago, the Obama Administration apparently prepared for this by issuing a secret rule "saying it was legal for the FBI to have skirted federal privacy protections." Convenient. Two, Wired Notes that the FBI and AT&T were like peas in a pod as the law was repeatedly broken, and a significant portion of the idea to shortcut the standard legal process actually originated at AT&T
The telecom employees were supposed to be responding to National Security Letters, which are essentially FBI-issued subpoenas. But those Patriot Act powers say the target must be part of an open investigation and that a supervisor has to approve it. While they require some paperwork, FBI agents have been issuing about 40,000 such NSLs a year.
But an AT&T employee provided the unit with a way around some of those requirements. The employee introduced them to so-called 'exigent letters.' Those letters, first used immediately following 9/11, asked for information by saying that the request was an emergency and that prosecutors were preparing a grand jury subpoena. The letter falsely promised that the subpoena, which gives the telecoms legal immunity, would be delivered later, the report said.
But it gets more interesting. Not only was AT&T advising the FBI on ways to break the law, they were going several steps further -- developing systems that would not only hand over data on the initial target, but entire "communities of interest" that they associated with (we're talking about American citizens, including reporters). AT&T was so gung-ho about helping the FBI wiggle around and over the law, they actually began to fancy themselves NSA/FBI analysts:
AT&T took a particular interest in using its "community of interest" technology to become analysts for the agents, the report said. For instance, according to the report, an AT&T analyst looked at one informal FBI request and said the calling patterns on four numbers were "very interesting," and "we strongly suggest" the bureau examines other, associated phone numbers.
As this rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper, AT&T's involvement in breaking telecom law becomes absolutely staggering, and it becomes more and more clear why companies like AT&T and Verizon spent so much time and money lobbying for immunity
from any claims of wrongdoing. Prosecution, should the country suddenly become interested in the letter of the law as applied to corporations, could have easily resulted in life-threatening financial injury for both companies. Meanwhile, as Techdirt notes
, you've got a President (one in a series of several) who apparently believes he has the magic power to simply declare what's legal and what isn't.