Category Archives: WIRETAPPING

With just one wiretap order, US authorities listened in on 3.3 million phone calls

The order was carried out in 2016 as part of a federal narcotics investigation.

NEW YORK, NY — US authorities intercepted and recorded millions of phone calls last year under a single wiretap order, authorized as part of a narcotics investigation.

The wiretap order authorized an unknown government agency to carry out real-time intercepts of 3.29 million cell phone conversations over a two-month period at some point during 2016, after the order was applied for in late 2015.

The order was signed to help authorities track 26 individuals suspected of involvement with illegal drug and narcotic-related activities in Pennsylvania.

The wiretap cost the authorities $335,000 to conduct and led to a dozen arrests.

But the authorities noted that the surveillance effort led to no incriminating intercepts, and none of the handful of those arrested have been brought to trial or convicted.

The revelation was buried in the US Courts’ annual wiretap report, published earlier this week but largely overlooked.

“The federal wiretap with the most intercepts occurred during a narcotics investigation in the Middle District of Pennsylvania and resulted in the interception of 3,292,385 cell phone conversations or messages over 60 days,” said the report.

Details of the case remain largely unknown, likely in part because the wiretap order and several motions that have been filed in relation to the case are thought to be under seal.

It’s understood to be one of the largest number of calls intercepted by a single wiretap in years, though it’s not known the exact number of Americans whose communications were caught up by the order.

We contacted the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where the wiretap application was filed, but did not hear back.

Albert Gidari, a former privacy lawyer who now serves as director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, criticized the investigation.

“They spent a fortune tracking 26 people and recording three million conversations and apparently got nothing,” said Gidari. “I’d love to see the probable cause affidavit for that one and wonder what the court thought on its 10 day reviews when zip came in.”

“I’m not surprised by the results because on average, a very very low percentage of conversations are incriminating, and a very very low percent results in conviction,” he added.

When reached, a spokesperson for the Justice Department did not comment

Contact me securely

Zack Whittaker can be reached securely on Signal and WhatsApp at 646-755–8849, and his PGP fingerprint for email is: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

If you see something, leak something. Telling the world holds people in office accountable, no matter how big or small it may be.

There are a number of ways to contact me securely, in ranking order.

Encrypted calls and texts

I use both Signal and WhatsApp for end-to-end encrypted calling and messaging. The apps are available for iPhones and Android devices.

You can reach me at +1 646-755–8849 on Signal or WhatsApp.

I will get back to you as soon as possible if I don’t immediately respond.

Encrypted instant messaging

You can also contact me using “Off The Record” messaging, which allows you to talk to me in real time on your computer. It’s easy to use once you get started. This helpful guide will show you how to get set up.

You will need a Jabber instant messaging account. There are many options to choose from. For anonymity, you should create an account through the Tor browser.

You can reach me at: zackwhittaker@jabber.at during working hours.

When you verify my fingerprint, it’s this: 914F503C 03771A5F A9E2AC91 95861FDA 9B3A7EAD.

Send me PGP email

My email address is zack.whittaker@gmail.com (remove the dot for PGP).

PGP, or “Pretty Good Privacy,” is a great (but tricky-to-use) way of emailing someone encrypted files or messages. PGP works on almost every email account and computer, but using it on your work or home email address won’t hide who you are, or the fact that you sent a reporter an email.

If you want to remain anonymous, go somewhere that isn’t your home or work network. Then, you should use the Tor browser, which hides your location, to access a free email service (like this one or this one).

The EFF has a set of easy-to-use tutorials on how to get started.

You will need my public PGP key to email me securely, available here.

You can also verify my PGP fingerprint to be sure it’s me: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

You can also get this information on my Keybase profile.

When all else fails…

You can always send me things through the mail. My work address is:

Zack Whittaker c/o CBS,
28 E. 28th Street,
New York, NY 10016,
United States of America.

(Updated: January 14 with additional Keybase details.)
(Updated: April 30 with new Jabber fingerprint.)

Henry Sapiecha

US wiretap numbers still don’t add up, and nobody knows why

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint reported almost three-times the number of wiretaps that were listed in the government’s official report.

Red vintage telephone, metaphor/symbol for a wide variety of concepts. Copy space.

There’s a huge difference between the number of wiretaps reported by the US courts and the number of wiretaps responded to by US phone companies.

Last month, the US Courts’ Administrative Office said the number of wiretaps authorized in 2015, which allow the authorities real-time access to communications, stood at 4,148 wiretaps, up by 17 percent from a year ago. Not a single wiretap request was rejected during the year.

But that figure doesn’t make sense when you look at how many government data demands were processed by the big telcos.

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint responded to 11,633 wiretaps during the year — almost a threefold increase over the government’s annual wiretap report. (T-Mobile alone said in its latest transparency report that it received hundreds more wiretaps than the government’s official tally.)

And that’s just the cell networks — the difference is likely far larger when you account for landlines and internet companies.

So how many wiretaps were authorized last year? Nobody can explain the discrepancy.

upload-wiretaps-chart-graph image www.intelagencies.com

This isn’t even the first time the numbers come under scrutiny.

Albert Gidari, a former leading privacy lawyer who now serves as director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, was first to notice a difference in the numbers. In the previous 2014 wiretap report, he noticed a twofold inconsistency between what the courts reported and what the cell giants reported.

In a blog post a year ago, he analyzed the numbers. Even taking into account the complexities of run-on and extended wiretaps, Gidari said the numbers still don’t add up.

He told me on Tuesday — a little over a year later — he still can’t figure it out.

“No one seems to have an adequate explanation,” he said.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office explained, “numerous wiretap authorizations are not reported… in the year they expire because investigations are ongoing.” The spokesperson also said it’s possible that “one wiretap order can include multiple devices, therefore, the total number of devices tapped is likely to be greater than the number of orders issued.” Also, if wiretap applications are granted but require an extension, the courts will not report the orders until after they expire.

That might apply to a few stray wiretap requests, but Gidari said that it wouldn’t come close to explaining the threefold margin of error.

“It is inexplicable even considering that carriers may each have received an order that covered four different devices on four different carrier networks,” he said. “But for that to explain it, every order would have to have at least three devices covered on three carrier networks to explain the numbers.”

“Transparency is supposed to be about making it clearer, not more obscure or obtuse,” he said.

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Henry Sapiecha

UK refuses to reveal how many lawmakers are under surveillance

UK Home secretary Theresa May did confirm that members of devolved parliaments and the European Parliament are not subject to wiretap protections.

UK home secretary Theresa May speaking on BBC radio image www.intelagencies.com

UK home secretary Theresa May speaking on BBC radio (Image: BBC/Twitter; file photo)

The UK’s home secretary Theresa May has refused to confirm how many fellow lawmakers have had their communications intercepted by British intelligence agencies.

In a brief confrontation in the parliament’s House of Commons on Monday, fellow Conservative Peter Bone MP said May’s refusal to answer was an “indication” that some members of parliament (MPs) have been subject to surveillance by UK intelligence agencies.

The emergency session follows a ruling last week that determined the so-called Wilson Doctrine, a promise made by former prime minister Harold Wilson that said members of parliament won’t have their mail opened or phones tapped by the intelligence agencies without his direct knowledge, was no longer valid.

May said the doctrine “still applies,” but confirmed that devolved members of parliament in Scotland (MSPs), Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as members of the European Parliament (MEPs), are not protected by the doctrine.

Joanna Cherry MP, a Scottish member of parliament, criticized May’s response, asking why the government thinks the Scottish parliament is “less deserving” of the doctrine’s protection. She added that the home secretary’s “caveated” comments about the doctrine in 2014 suggested the doctrine may have been partly suspended around the time of the Scottish national independence referendum, a national vote that saw Scotland remain as part of the United Kingdom.

Caroline Lucas MP, who brought the case under debate to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, said lawmakers had been “misled” over the level of protections MPs are afforded under the doctrine.

Doctrine ‘cannot work sensibly’

Until last week, the doctrine was kept in force by every prime minister since Wilson, but was expanded in 2002 when former prime minister Tony Blair said the doctrine applied to “all forms” of communications.

But last week, James Eadie QC told the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which hears complaints against the intelligence agencies, that the doctrine “simply cannot work sensibly” in an age of bulk data collection and mass surveillance, and did not have the force or weight of the law.

The IPT said that the UK’s spy agencies MI5, MI6, and GCHQ — the eavesdropping agency whose activities were detailed in an extensive range of documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden — have their own separate policies that do not require for the prime minister to be informed where parliamentary communications were collected.

MPs were quick to respond with anger, amid concerns that emails sent to and from parliamentary offices may have been collected or spied on.

In a letter to the prime minister David Cameron, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon asked for clarification, arguing “the confidentiality of communications between parliamentarians and their constituents is of the utmost importance,” according to The Guardian.

MPs not ‘above the law’

Many of the lawmakers on Monday argued that the need to protect their communications from surveillance was to protect whistleblowers, and not about driving a wedge of privilege between them and the public.

David Davis MP, a Conservative politician known for being pro-civil liberties, and who has almost always voted against requiring the mass retention of information about communications, said MPs need the doctrine’s protections against government surveillance because their job is to “hold the government to account.”

He argued that MPs often “deal with campaigners, journalists, whistleblowers, and our own constituents” in bringing to light wrongdoing disclosed by members of the public, including police and public-sector workers, and employees of big corporations.

Chris Bryant MP, who called for the emergency debate following last week’s ruling, argued that MPs “cannot ever be above the law,” a sentiment echoed by others, including the home secretary.

Bryant, a Labour MP with a long record of voting in favor of data retention and communications collection legislation, accused May of withholding any public statement about a change in the doctrine’s standing because it wasn’t “compatible” with the current state of national security.

Davis, in agreement with Lucas and others, said the the doctrine must be enshrined into law.

May will “soon” introduce the so-called “snoopers’ charter,” first mentioned earlier this year in the Queen’s annual speech.

Known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, the Conservative government said the draft law would give authorities “tools” to keep the public safe by addressing gaps in existing intelligence gathering.

Dominic Grieve MP, chair of the Security and Intelligence Committee which oversees the intelligence agencies, said the committee will examine how parliamentarians will be treated under the new draft bill.

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Henry Sapiecha