The Obama administration has authorized—in secret, of course—ongoing warrantless wiretaps of network segments operated by AT&T, CenturyLink, and several other telecommunications companies, cable companies, and internet service providers. AT&T, of course, was one of the largest participants in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) warrantless wiretapping program. According to Declan McCullagh, writing for CNET, the program started with a pilot project in which the US military would monitor defense contractor internet activity but has since been expanded to “cover all critical infrastructure sectors including energy, healthcare, and finance starting 12 June.”
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) obtained more than 1,000 pages of internal Justice Department documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and Marc Rotenberg, EPIC’s executive director, tells McCullagh, “The Justice Department is helping private companies evade federal wiretap laws. Alarm bells should be going off.”
McCullagh reports that the warrantless wiretapping effort is being performed under 18 USC 2511, a section of the Wiretap Act that prohibits the interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications without a warrant. A primary exception of the prohibition is what’s known as the Provider Exception (18 USC 2511(2)(a)(i)) allowing telecommunications companies to intercept and monitor communications on their networks in a limited capacity to combat fraud and theft of service.
The Justice Department provided the telecommunications companies with written assurances—commonly known as “2511 letters” in reference to the USC section—acknowledging the companies would not be prosecuted for overstepping the statutory limitations of the Provider Exception.
McCullagh reports that in March 2013, the Congressional Research Service published a report (.pdf; 270.4KB) finding “the executive branch likely does not have the legal authority to authorize more widespread monitoring of communications unless Congress rewrites the law.”
It’s important to note that proposed legislation currently under consideration, including the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) and Strengthening and Enhancing Cybersecurity by Using Research, Education, Information, and Technology Act (SECURE IT), would authorize this warrantless wiretapping program precluding the necessity of the “2511 letters.”