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AT&T admits to spy room

Finally, months after the shock revelation that AT&T had secretly installed a ‘spy room’, which allowed it to monitor a chunk of all domestic internet traffic, and the resultant legal pushback, out came the truth.

On Wednesday, AT&T ceased attempts to seal the documents that technician Mark Klein took away when he retired from the carrier in 2004, and later leaked to Wired magazine.

The information, which formed the basis for the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) legal assault on the carrier, is now available on the web, complete with full diagrams of what a spy room system should look like.

The EFF’s case alleges that AT&T acted illegally in monitoring public communications for the US National Security Agency because neither the carrier nor the NSA obtained a warrant as required by law.

The spying revelations sparked a political scandal in the US, after it emerged that several other carriers had also been monitoring the communications of US citizens without legal authorisation.

AT&T’s defence is that it acted on what it took to be legal authority. The US government’s lawyers, meanwhile, argued that the documents should be suppressed on grounds of national security. On Wednesday, a court threw out these arguments, leading to the publication of all the documents including a technical analysis by J. Scott Marcus, former CTO of GTE Internetworking, now known as Genuity.

Marcus concluded that the installations could have permitted “massive data capture and analysis” of as much as 10 per cent of US domestic internet traffic.

The system intercepted all peering traffic AT&T exchanged with other networks connected to the Folsom Street site in San Francisco. It does not seem to have monitored on-network AT&T traffic. Tellingly, the machines inside the spy room appear to have been connected to a distinct national backbone network of OC3 (155Mbps) lines, which Marcus expects were connected to NSA surveillance facilities.

As the relevant authority, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, has yet to refuse a request for a warrant, this was widely taken to be an unwarranted attempt to assert executive powers outside the law. The president claimed, and controversially, continues to claim, that the tapping was conducted in the exercise of the powers of a commander-in-chief during wartime and that these escape from Congressional or judicial oversight.

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