The National Security Agency worked closely with the FBI and telecom agencies to tap all communications surrounding the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, a fact that raises the question of just what limits there are on what the government and tech companies can do when in agreement with each other.
“There’s technically and physically nothing preventing a much broader surveillance,” Paul Kouroupas, a former telecom executive told the Journal, noting that any checks and balances require the government and tech companies to police themselves. The potential for that policing to go awry can be seen clearly in an example the Wall Street Journal mentions deep into its story on the NSA’s current surveillance programs. The United States was on high alert when the Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City in 2002. Less than a full year after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was determined to prevent another attack, no matter whether the tactics were entirely within the bounds of previous understandings of domestic surveillance’s limits:
For the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, officials say, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NSA arranged with Qwest Communications International Inc. to use intercept equipment for a period of less than six months around the time of the event. It monitored the content of all email and text communications in the Salt Lake City area.
The Bush administration later was reprimanded for its illegal use of domestic wiretapping without the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s approval, but at the time seems to have operated with little impunity. Many programs used to access this data are still in place today, and include a system code-named Blarney. Blarney was mentioned in the documents former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked earlier this summer and whose name is itself a reference to the massive Shamrock program that inspired the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s limits on domestic spying.
Telecommunications companies — including Verizon, AT&T and other major players in the U.S. market — have already faced criticism for their cooperation with the government in collecting vast quantities of metadata from its phone service providers. The transfer of information goes far beyond that, according to the Journal, and beyond even the controversial Prism program used to sift through foreign data from major web-based companies like Google and Facebook.
Instead, the NSA has the ability to request access to data streams from providers that make up 75 percent of U.S. internet traffic, through first focusing on a certain “area of interest” in their request to the telecommunications company in question, then using “strong selectors” to look through not only information about who is sending the data but the content of the data itself. Companies are compelled to respond to these requests through court orders handed down from the FISA Court, which has been at times criticized for rarely rejecting government requests.
The breadth of access to Americans’ data is made possible through relationships with U.S. telecommunications companies and hardware that tech companies provide. That level of access has at times worried internet providers, some of whom have limited the government to only tapping “clearly foreign” data streams. “Somebody should enunciate a rule,” a person familiar with the legal process between the government and tech companies said to the WSJ, making clear that the discussions between the two over just what the law allows have “been going on for some years.”
Since the revelations of NSA’s full reach began in June, the Obama administration has been scrambling to lessen the criticism of the programs they argue are necessary to fight against terrorism. President Obama announced earlier this month that he would institute a series of reforms to the NSA to better protect American citizens’ privacy and allow for more transparency. “We have significant capabilities but we also show a restraint that governments around the world refuse to show,” Obama said in his speech, adding, “I am comfortable that the current program is not being abused.”