The Wall Street Journal points out something that ought to chill everyone to the bone:
The U.S. government has used the merger-approval process to increase its influence over the telecom industry, bringing more companies under its oversight and gaining a say over activities as fundamental as equipment purchases.
The leverage has come from a series of increasingly restrictive security agreements between telecom companies and national-security agencies that are designed to head off threats to strategically significant networks and maintain the government’s ability to monitor communications, according to a review of the public documents and lawyers who have negotiated the agreements.
I think it is safe to say we’re terrified of terrorism to the point that we seem willing to trade freedom and privacy for at least the veneer of security. And we all know what Ben Franklin had to say about that trade.
The increased oversight reflects the national-security establishment’s growing concern about threats to U.S. networks and the globalization of an industry in which equipment is increasingly made in China and other foreign countries, people familiar with the accords said.
The deals routinely require the companies to give the government streamlined access to their networks. At their most restrictive, they grant officials the right to require firms to remove certain gear and approve equipment purchases and directors.
So government is knee deep in telecom to the point that it even decides what equipment they can use and what directors they can appoint. While the government’s security concerns may have some validity, are the terms and restrictions too much?
Well, let’s consider a recent example of a related industry during the Snowden affair:
Lavabit is — well, was — an e-mail service that offered more privacy than the typical large-Internet-corporation services that most of us use. It was a small company, owned and operated by Ladar Levison, and it was popular among the tech-savvy. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden among its half-million users.
Last month, Levison reportedly received an order — probably a National Security Letter — to allow the NSA to eavesdrop on everyone’s e-mail accounts on Lavabit. Rather than “become complicit in crimes against the American people,” he turned the service off. Note that we don’t know for sure that he received a NSL — that’s the order authorized by the Patriot Act that doesn’t require a judge’s signature and prohibits the recipient from talking about it — or what it covered, but Levison has said that he had complied with requests for individual e-mail access in the past, but this was very different.
So far, we just have an extreme moral act in the face of government pressure. It’s what happened next that is the most chilling. The government threatened him with arrest, arguing that shutting down this e-mail service was a violation of the order.
In essence, the NSA was telling Mr. Levison, via it’s threat to arrest him for not doing what it said, that it was the defacto “owner” of his enterprise. That he, in fact, had only one duty – comply. That he had no decision on how to proceed with what he apparently erroneously believed was his property until the NSA showed up.
T-Mobile has been operating under a security agreement since 2001, when its parent company Deutsche Telekom AG, acquired VoiceStream Wireless Corp. for $50 billion. The agreement required that communications infrastructure be located in the U.S. and pass through a facility from which lawful electronic surveillance could be conducted.
It also prohibited the carrier from sharing communication data with foreign governments and allowed officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department to interview employees and inspect “communications infrastructure” upon “reasonable notice” in order to ensure compliance with the agreement.
Reasonable or unreasonable? Who is the defacto owner here?
The carrier also agreed to provide the two agencies with an updated list of principal network equipment, including routers, switches, base stations and servers, as well as manufacturer and model numbers for hardware and software, a provision that wasn’t included in the 2001 agreement.
Such inspection rights have improved the government’s understanding of how the networks are put together, said Andrew Lipman, a partner at Bingham McCutchen LLP who has worked on about three dozen agreements over the last 20 years.
“The fact they have these rights to inspect gives them a window into equipment vendors that otherwise the government wouldn’t have,” he said. The government is using these agreements to “go to school” on network operations. “It’s like a shadow foreman at the factory,” he said.
That knowledge, he added, facilitates “the ability to—when appropriate—engage in record collection, data collection and wiretapping.”
And, of course, we all know that government would never abuse any of this access. I mean, it’s silly to think, for instance, that NSA employees would use their access to spy on their love interests, isn’t it?
In the final analysis we have to decide where the line is to be drawn in terms of the limits of the security state. Otherwise, as we’re discovering, it continues to creep into more and more areas and assume more and more powers. Are we really willing to give government … any government … the sort of power it has apparently assumed on its own? Are we willing to trust our privacy to an entity which has gone this deeply into controlling this one industry (and how deeply are they into others we don’t know about?)?
Security is important. Freedom and privacy are more important. More and more it seems our government has put security above both freedom and privacy. And that is contrary to the founding principles upon which this nation was founded. The question is, who will call a halt to the creeping security state?