March 17, 2010 | By Tim Jones

Wiring Up The Big Brother Machine... And Fighting It

Here's a movie pitch: One lone telecommunications technician, going about his ordinary daily work in San Francisco, begins to realize things aren't quite what they seem. There's a "secret room" downstairs, and ordinary employees aren't allowed to enter it. Coworkers — almost casually! — remark that a government spy agency is involved, that similar facilities are being built across the country, that some of them are stamped with the government's ominous eye-and-pyramid "Total Information Awareness" logo.

Soon, the plot thickens. Mundane technical procedures produce startling revelations. He stumbles on a document that suggests the room contains a supercomputer designed to data-mine phone calls and Internet traffic. And, indeed, he soon realizes that the room is sucking up copies of electronic communications from millions of random Americans.

All this in the early 2000s, when "the political atmosphere in the country after 9/11 had a witchhunt feel to it, and even modest criticism of the administration was getting painted as disloyalty or worse."

What happens to our hero when he finally decides to go public?

Even though I'd heard Mark Klein's story before, I'd never considered just how frightening and surreal his experience must have been. His new memoir reads like something out of a kafka-esque sci-fi spy thriller — except that it all really happened right here in the USA, just a few years ago.

For instance, when Klein shares his evidence with an eager reporter for the Los Angeles Times, at first he's told the story will be ground-breaking and "a big front-page spread." Yet, the story languishes for weeks.

Klein writes:

On Feb 11 (2006), I got a call from Joe Menn, the Los Angeles Times reporter, who told me that their "top guy" was going to have a meeting with the Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte himself about this story over the weekend. I nearly fell down in shock — they were actually negotiating with the government on whether to publish!... More importantly, this meant Negroponte knew about my documents — and me.

Indeed, as ABC's Nightline revealed much later, both Negroponte and National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden pressured the LA Times to kill the story. And when Klein told his story to CBS's 60 Minutes, they too eventually killed the story without explanation.

In the end, of course, Klein's evidence became the backbone of EFF's lawsuit against AT&T for their complicity in illegal government spying. Originally ignored by Senators and newspapers alike, his evidence was ultimately so damning that it could only be defeated by an unprecedented "telco immunity" law pushed by the Bush White House and passed by the US Congress amidst a massive public controversy. EFF then relied on Klein's evidence for a case against the government, which has been met with fierce resistance by the Obama Administration.

Klein's journey, from quiet cubicle technician to personal enemy of the White House and Pentagon, is amazing, moving and eerie. His story, "Wiring Up The Big Brother Machine... And Fighting It," is on sale now.

Deeplinks Topics

Stay in Touch

NSA Spying

EFF is leading the fight against the NSA's illegal mass surveillance program. Learn more about what the program is, how it works, and what you can do.

Follow EFF

The final TPP text is still secret, but based on what we know so far it's a terrible deal for digital rights:

Oct 8 @ 6:00pm

Great news! Gov. Brown has signed SB 741—a great first step towards limiting the use & acquisition of IMSI catchers in California.

Oct 8 @ 3:52pm

BREAKING: Victory! @JerryBrownGov signs CalECPA, guaranteeing warrant protection for digital records in California

Oct 8 @ 2:53pm
JavaScript license information