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The iPhone: An Aid to Domestic Spying?

How your iPhone service provider has cooperated with illegal eavesdropping.
 
 
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If you didn't manage to snag an iPhone yet, it might not be the worst thing in the world. In addition to saving some money to pay off those pesky student loans, you also might be successfully avoiding wiretaps from the National Security Agency.

When Steve Jobs announced an exclusive partnership with AT&T during Macworld 2007, most Mac fanboys were too distracted by the glossy touch screens to realize that AT&T is the company most notoriously connected to domestic spying programs.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush signed a secret executive order that authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens and foreign nationals in America. Usually, these searches have been carried out on foreigners with appropriate warrants and oversight, following the protocol of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Bush administration has argued that FISA is an unconstitutional infringement on the power of the executive office, and that the Authorization for Use of Military Force granted the President permission to change the rules. Constitutional scholars and privacy advocates disagree. The debate has continued, but so has rampant domestic surveillance.

The purpose of the spy program was to listen in on phone calls, emails, texts, and other forms of communication between people suspected of being connected to terrorist groups in the United States or overseas. Monitoring known terrorists would be easy enough using the FISA rules enacted in 1978, but the problem is that our intelligence agencies are clueless as to the whereabouts of terrorists. Therefore, the administration has argued that they need to cast a wider net and sift through more collected data about potential operatives to prevent terrorism.

In order to carry out these orders, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent out bulk batches of form letters, which basically said, "Due to exigent circumstances, it is requested that records for the attached list of telephone numbers be provided." Most telecommunications companies read these letters, recognized the privacy concerns of their customers and the lack of legal authority in the FBI mass mailing, and refused to comply with the FBI's requests.

However, one company went above and beyond to help the FBI reach out and touch someone--AT&T. In fact, AT&T went so far as to build a secret room at their network-monitoring facility in San Francisco. Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician turned whistleblower, has been speaking out about his former employer's illegal practices. He's currently helping the Electronic Frontier Foundation with their class-action lawsuit against AT&T, which is ongoing in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Klein's case against the telecommunications giant is not a flimsy conspiracy theory. The FBI was practically flaunting their presence at AT&T, openly interviewing job candidates for the mission. The staff members left documents lying around the office that provided very specific technical details about how to split wires and tap the lines. The wiretappers also regularly showed off the keys they wore around their neck that allowed them to gain access to data from San Diego, Seattle, and other cities, making a strong FISA fashion statement with their 1337 bling.

Now faced with a lawsuit and exposed to the public, AT&T's defense has been "the government told us to." Unfortunately, Fortune 500 companies don't hire Ombudsmommies to ask important questions, like "if Tommy was jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge would you do that too?" Luckily, people such as U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker are setting things straight. Said Judge Walker, "AT&T cannot seriously contend that a reasonable entity in its position could have believed that the alleged domestic dragnet was legal."

So what compelled Apple to pick AT&T as the sole U.S. provider? Well, to be fair, Verizon was its first pick, but they balked at some of Apple's possessive requests and hefty financial demands. In the end, Apple had to go with orange (Cingular), which merged with AT&T. Like Ma Bell, we've now got the ill communication.

These Orwellian observations should not stop consumers from buying this incredible new gadget, but just realize that your Big Brother might be listening in on the other line.

Mark Pike is a student at William & Mary School of Law and is currently a summer clerk at the Electronic Privacy Information Center .

 
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