September 28, 2013
It’s widely known that the NSA has taps connected to the various telco networks, thanks in large part to AT&T employee Mark Klein who blew the whistle on AT&T’s secret NSA room in San Francisco. What was unclear was exactly what kind of access the NSA had. Various groups like the EFF and CDT have both been asking the administration to finally come clean, in the name of transparency, if they’re tapping backbone networks to snarf up internet communications like email. So far, the administration has declined to elaborate. Back in August, when the FISA courtdeclassified its ruling about NSA violations, the third footnote, though heavily redacted, did briefly discuss this “upstream” capability:
In short, “upstream” capabilities are tapping the backbone itself, via the willing assistance of the telcos (who still have remained mostly silent on all of this) as opposed to “downstream” collection, which requires going to the internet companies directly. The internet companies have been much more resistant to government attempts to get access to their accounts. And thus, it’s a big question as to what exactly the NSA can collect via its taps on the internet backbone, and the NSA and its defenders have tried to remain silent on this point, as you can see from the redactions above.
However, as Kevin Bankston notes, during Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Dianne Feinstein more or less admitted that they get emails via “upstream” collection methods. As you can see in the following clip, Feinstein interrupts a discussion to read a prepared “rebuttal” to a point being made, and in doing so clearly says that the NSA can get emails via upstream collections:
Upstream collection… occurs when NSA obtains internet communications, such as e-mails, from certain US companies that operate the Internet background, i.e., the companies that own and operate the domestic telecommunications lines over which internet traffic flows.
She clearly means “backbone” rather than “background.” She’s discussing this in an attempt to defend the NSA’s “accidental” collection of information it shouldn’t have had. But that point is not that important. Instead, the important point is that she’s now admitted what most people suspected, but which the administration has totally avoided admitting for many, many years since the revelations made by Mark Klein.
So, despite years of trying to deny that the NSA can collect email and other communications directly from the backbone (rather than from the internet companies themselves), Feinstein appears to have finally let the cat out of the bag, perhaps without realizing it.