March 13, 2008
The National Security Agency was once known for its skill in eavesdropping on the world’s telephone calls through radio dishes in out-of-the-way places like England’s Menwith Hill, Australia’s Pine Gap, and Washington state’s Yakima Training Center.
Today those massive installations, which listened in on phone conversations beamed over microwave links, are becoming something akin to relics of the Cold War. As more communications traffic travels through fiber links, and as e-mail and text messaging supplant phone calls, the spy agency that once intercepted telegrams is adapting yet again.
Recent evidence suggests that the NSA has been focusing on widespread monitoring of e-mail messages and text messages, recording of Web browsing, and other forms of electronic data-mining, all done without court supervision. Taken together, those activities raise unique privacy and oversight concerns greater than those posed by large-scale monitoring of voice communications.
Documents released last week by a security consultant (PDF) indicate that an unnamed major wireless provider has opened its network to the U.S. government, allowing customers’ e-mail, text messaging, and Web use to be monitored. And Assistant Attorney General for National Security Kenneth Wainstein said last week that surveillance of e-mail was the real concern raised by the debate over amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
That led some high-ranking House Democrats, including Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, to circulate a letter (PDF) advising their colleagues to look skeptically at a Republican proposal that would grant retroactive immunity to companies that illegally let the Feds plug into their networks. The Republicans’ blanket of retroactive immunity would likely cover e-mail providers, search engines, Internet service providers, and instant-messaging services too.
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