Civics & Politics The Environment Health Economics Social Issues Full Archive
NOW on Demand
Week of 2.16.07

Breaking the Story

Ryan Singel NOW's Deborah Runcie speaks to journalist Ryan Singel, who covers civil liberty and privacy issues, about his investigative work involving AT&T and the government's alleged secret surveillance of personal electronic mail. Singel's coverage appeared in Wired News.

NOW: How did you obtain the documents that were used in this case?

Singel: There's a bit of a back story. In December of 2005 The New York Times reported that the government had been wiretapping communications of Americans, both their emails and their phone calls, without warrants. Soon after that, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)—a digital rights group based in San Francisco—filed a lawsuit in a California court accusing AT&T of helping the government with this program without having the proper legal authority to do so. As the EFF was about to file their suit, Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician, approached them and gave them a set of documents stating that he had seen a secret Internet switching room at AT&T's facility in San Francisco. (See The Whistleblower)

The documents then became the core behind EFF's filing the lawsuit. The government said the documents did not include state secrets, but AT&T said they had trade secrets. So they were then sealed in a courtroom in San Francisco. By doing a little leg work and making sure that we didn't work with people that were under orders from the judge to not reveal information, we were able to obtain copies [of Klein's sealed documents] of wiring diagrams showing certain connections from other ISPs being routed into this secret room.

NOW: You obtained those copies from an anonymous source. What happened then?

Singel: This is one of the benefits of being a beat writer—people know me and I know a lot of people. I was able to search around through a network of people and found someone who had access to the [Klein's] documents. Once we had the documents there was a lot of discussion with editors and lawyers. Wall Street [firms] were saying that these documents contained trade secrets that would hurt their businesses substantially.

So we [Wired News] found sources knowledgeable at a very high level in terms of networks. We had them determine whether the documents could actually hurt AT&T or leave them open to being manipulated by hackers. Once we did due diligence and felt comfortable that publication of the documents would not harm AT&T, we went forward and published the documents.

NOW: As you read through the 30 pages of this material that was gathered by the whistle blower Mark Klein what were your thoughts?

Singel: I mean honestly, they were very suggestive documents. But yet, they weren't a total smoking gun. Nowhere did it say that here's where all the information goes to the NSA [National Security Agency]. The information about there being a room that only NSA-approved personnel could go into, that came out of Mr. Klein's declaration. It wasn't in a written document that was an official document.

NOW: What would you say is the most significant thing or things that these documents reveal?

Singel: What the documents reveal is that there's a room in the AT&T switching center in San Francisco. And that inside there's a big machine made by this company NARUS - it is used for analyzing data traffic, or for complying with wiretapping orders. What was really interesting was that what was going into this room was not simply AT&T's traffic. The way the Internet works is that AT&T's network needs to be connected up with other people's network so they can exchange traffic. So if you have an EarthLink email account and I have an AT&T WorldNet account and I want to email you, the data has to somehow transfer. So the way that works is that AT&T's network and EarthLink often have a connection. And the connections from those other ISPs—portions of that fiber optic signal were then sliced off and sent into this room. Having the names, dates, and size of the connections really added weight to Klein's belief that this room was intended for some sort of eavesdropping.

NOW: How confident are you that the documents that you were given are the same documents that are sealed in the San Francisco courthouse?

Singel: When we published the story, that was one of the things we said, that we could not be completely sure because the documents are under seal. Prior to our publication, the court allowed some of the documents and portions of Klein's declaration to be open to the public. An independent expert's evaluation of the documents showed word for word what we had published to be in agreement with the filed documents. And AT&T has never come forward and said anything about the documents not being accurate or being different from Mr. Klein's documents.

NOW: Is there a way to prevent the government from having access to one's emails, through encryption for example?

Singel: The way most encrypted email works is that you're able to see who you're sending something to. The government can see that you're sending something to Joe at because that information has to be shown so the network knows where to send things. So you can't hide that information because otherwise the Internet doesn't work.

NOW: What other cases are out there with respect to wiretapping?

Singel: There's been a large number of lawsuits that have been filed besides the EFF lawsuit against AT&T. There's been more than 50 lawsuits filed against the government directly and against other telecoms and ISPs. As a judicial process, what they've done is consolidated all of those lawsuits with a single judge, which is the judge in San Francisco who's been handling the AT&T case.

NOW: Where do things stand with the EFF's lawsuit against AT&T?

Singel: Currently the decision is that the lawsuit can go on to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A three judge panel has said they are going to hear that appeal. So that should happen in the coming months. But neither the government nor AT&T or EFF have filed with the court yet. In the meantime, the judge in San Francisco is trying to find ways to let the case go on. He seems to be very interested in having as much of the case go forward as he can. Currently he's trying to decide if that same ruling—that state secrets don't apply to the other suits against Verizon, Bell South, Sprint and MCI—whether those suits also can go forward despite the government's belief that they involve state secrets.

NOW: What would you like to see come out of the AT&T lawsuit?

Singel: Well, you have ways that people get caught up in what are good faith efforts to keep bad guys from killing another 3,000 people. So you have the terrorist watch lists. It's a good faith effort. However, it's badly managed—innocent people get caught up in it in stupid ways. Senator Ted Steven's wife Catharine gets stopped at the airport because they believe she's Cat Stevens, the folk singer. But with that said, I would want to tame down this belief that our government is monitoring every conversation and targeting people that are anti-war activists. I think that those are the exceptions rather than the rule.