It would be difficult to say whose e-mail, text messages or Internet phone calls the government is monitoring at any given time, but according to a former AT&T employee, the government has warrantless access to a great deal of Internet traffic should they care to take a peek.
As information is traded between users it flows also into a locked, secret room on the sixth floor of AT&T's San Francisco offices and other rooms around the country -- where the U.S. government can sift through and find the information it wants, former AT&T employee Mark Klein alleged Wednesday at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
"An exact copy of all Internet traffic that flowed through critical AT&T cables -- e-mails, documents, pictures, Web browsing, voice-over-Internet phone conversations, everything -- was being diverted to equipment inside the secret room," he said.
Klein, who worked for more than 20 years as a technician at AT&T, said that the highly secretive electronics-focused National Security Agency began working with telecom companies to gain wholesale access to vast amounts of data traveling over the Internet.
Klein was on Capitol Hill Wednesday attempting to convince lawmakers not to give a blanket, retroactive immunity to telecom companies for their secret cooperation with the government.
He said that as an AT&T technician overseeing Internet operations in San Francisco, he helped maintain optical splitters that diverted data en route to and from AT&T customers.
One day he found that the splitters were hard-wired into a secret room on the sixth floor.
Klein said only a management-level employee with NSA security clearance was allowed inside, but documents he obtained form AT&T showed that highly sophisticated data mining equipment was kept there.
Conversations he had with other technicians and the AT&T documents led Klein to believe there are 15 to 20 such sites nationwide, including in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego and Atlanta, he said.
AT&T and government lawyers have argued the documents Klein took are proprietary and have tried, as part of a class action filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in January 2006, to reclaim them. In doing so AT&T also verified their authenticity, EFF attorneys argued today.
AT&T spokesperson Susan Bean responded to inquiries about the lawsuit and the allegations by Klein in an e-mail statement today: "AT&T is fully committed to protecting our customers' privacy. We do not comment on matters of national security."
A federal judge dismissed claims by government lawyers, who are arguing the case instead of AT&T because of national security implications, that the company is immune to lawsuit for the access to data they provided to the government. An appeal of that order is pending and has temporarily halted the lawsuit.
But Congress is considering a proposal to grant retroactive, blanket immunity for telecom companies for their cooperation with the government as part of a bill that would revamp the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and give government spy agencies more latitude in their information gathering.
The House of Representatives has so far rejected the immunity, but the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a bill last month that would allow it. The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to consider that bill at a meeting Thursday.