January 30, 2008 | By Tim Jones

Illegal Government Surveillance: It's Not Just For Foreigners

Tuesday morning, Congress passed a 15 day extension to the Protect America Act. While it would have been better if Congress had called Bush's bluff on the so-called "surveillance blackout" and allowed the act to expire altogether, we are glad and relieved that they're at least taking time to consider further compromises and amendments, rather than caving and passing the draconian Intelligence Committee bill. Massive thanks to all of you who phoned your Senators over the weekend and helped make it happen.

Later in the day, Senator Feingold spoke with progressive bloggers about FISA, eloquently explaining part of what's so frightening about today's surveillance laws:

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"Do you folks realize that, if you make a phone call or an email, or do what I did yesterday, receive an email from my daughter who is in England, that that is no longer private? That the government can suck up all your emails and all your phone calls, whether it be to your son or daughter in Iraq, or your child who's a junior year abroad, or a reporter over there, and there's no court oversight of it at all? It's just 'trust us,' by the adminsitration. That's what's going on in this legislation."

These simple examples are true and frightening enough, but the reality is far worse than they convey. The surveillance devices used by the NSA copy all internet traffic that passes through their fiberoptic cables, ones that carry what is known as "peered" traffic, or traffic between AT&T and other telecommunications carriers like Sprint. This is by no means limited to phone calls to England — it includes domestic private communications.

So, the government isn't only listening to phone calls with your child who's a junior year abroad — it's likely to be receiving phone calls with your child who's at their friend's house down the road. This distinction is an important part of the legal action being brought against AT&T and the other carriers, and something that's rarely conveyed by the media or understood by congresspeople.

As telecommunications expert Brian Reid says: "This isn't a wiretap. It's a countrytap."

The evidence is here on EFF.org: technical documents [PDF] brought to light by former AT&T technician Mark Klein, testimony from Brian Reid [PDF], and — if you want the full gory, nerdy details — a 370-page declaration from former FCC adviser J. Scott Marcus.


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