Big Brother goes corporate
Here is the proof that the United States is not totalitarian state. Under totalitarianism, the government spies and collects data on its own citizens, without the formalities of warrants or court orders. In the United States, in contrast, these functions are left to the private sector. From AP, June 20:
WASHINGTON - Numerous federal and local law enforcement agencies have bypassed subpoenas and warrants designed to protect civil liberties and gathered Americans' personal telephone records from private-sector data brokers.
These brokers, many of whom advertise aggressively on the Internet, have gotten into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into revealing information and even acknowledged that their practices violate laws, according to documents gathered by congressional investigators and provided to The Associated Press.
The law enforcement agencies include offices in the Homeland Security Department and Justice Department — including the FBI and U.S. Marshal's Service — and municipal police departments in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Utah. Experts believe hundreds of other departments frequently use such services.
"We are requesting any and all information you have regarding the above cell phone account and the account holder ... including account activity and the account holder's address," Ana Bueno, a police investigator in Redwood City, Calif., wrote in October to PDJ Investigations of Granbury, Texas.
An agent in Denver for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Anna Wells, sent a similar request on March 31 on Homeland Security stationery: "I am looking for all available subscriber information for the following phone number," Wells wrote to a corporate alias used by PDJ.
Congressional investigators estimated the U.S. government spent $30 million last year buying personal data from private brokers. But that number likely understates the breadth of transactions, since brokers said they rarely charge law enforcement agencies any price.
PDJ said it always provided help to police for free. "Agencies from all across the country took advantage of it," said PDJ's lawyer, Larry Slade of Los Angeles.
A lawmaker who has investigated the industry said Monday he was concerned by the practices of data brokers.
"We know law enforcement has used this because it is easily obtained and you can gather a lot of information very quickly," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., head of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee. The panel expects to conduct hearings this week.
Whitfield said data companies will relentlessly pursue a target's personal information. "They will impersonate and use everything available that they have to convince the person who has the information to share it with them, and it's shocking how successful they are," Whitfield said. "They can basically obtain any information about anybody on any subject."
The congressman said laws on the subject are vague: "There's a good chance there are some laws being broken, but it's not really clear precisely which laws."
James Bearden, a Texas lawyer who represents four such data brokers, compared the companies' activities to the National Security Agency, which reportedly compiles the phone records of ordinary Americans.
"The government is doing exactly what these people are accused of doing," Bearden said. "These people are being demonized. These are people who are partners with law enforcement on a regular basis."
Targets of the police interest include alleged marijuana smugglers, car thieves, armed thugs and others. [...]
"This is pernicious, an end run around the Fourth Amendment," said Marc Rotenberg, head of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leading privacy group that has sought tougher federal regulation of data brokers. "The government is encouraging unlawful conduct; it's not smart on the law enforcement side to be making use of information obtained improperly."
A federal agent who ordered phone records without subpoenas about a half-dozen times recently said he learned about the service from FBI investigators and was told this was a method to obtain phone subscriber information quicker than with a subpoena.
The agent, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with reporters, said he and colleagues use data brokers "when he have the need to act fairly quickly" because getting a subpoena can involve lengthy waits.
Related and equally ominous news, from the SF Chronicle, June 21:
The new policy says that AT&T -- not customers -- owns customers' confidential info and can use it "to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."
The policy also indicates that AT&T will track the viewing habits of customers of its new video service -- something that cable and satellite providers are prohibited from doing...
"They're obviously trying to avoid a hornet's nest of consumer-protection lawsuits," said Chris Hoofnagle, a San Francisco privacy consultant and former senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"They've written this new policy so broadly that they've given themselves maximum flexibility when it comes to disclosing customers' records," he said.
AT&T is being sued by San Francisco's Electronic Frontier Foundation for allegedly allowing the NSA to tap into the company's data network, providing warrantless access to customers' e-mails and Web browsing.
AT&T is also believed to have participated in President Bush's acknowledged domestic spying program, in which the NSA was given warrantless access to U.S. citizens' phone calls.
AT&T said in a statement last month that it "has a long history of vigorously protecting customer privacy" and that "our customers expect, deserve and receive nothing less than our fullest commitment to their privacy."
But the company also asserted that it has "an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether it be an individual or the security interests of the entire nation."
The new version, which is specifically for Internet and video customers, is much more explicit about the company's right to cooperate with government agencies in any security-related matters -- and AT&T's belief that customers' data belongs to the company, not customers.
"While your account information may be personal to you, these records constitute business records that are owned by AT&T," the new policy declares. "As such, AT&T may disclose such records to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."
It says the company "may disclose your information in response to subpoenas, court orders, or other legal process," omitting the earlier language about such processes being "required and/or permitted by law."
The new policy states that AT&T "may also use your information in order to investigate, prevent or take action regarding illegal activities, suspected fraud (or) situations involving potential threats to the physical safety of any person" -- conditions that would appear to embrace any terror-related circumstance.
See our last post on the new surveillance state.