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Verizon (and Google) Helped U.S. Government to Spy on Reporters

by Pratap ChatterjeeCorpWatch Blog
May 23rd, 2013

CorpWatch cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Technology companies willingly provided information to U.S. government agencies to help the Obama administration snoop on reporters from the Associated Press (AP) and Fox news in order to ostensibly crack down on leaks that pose a “threat” to national security.

Verizon, one of the largest mobile phone companies in the U.S., turned over records on 20 reporters from the AP who were working on a story on Yemen without questioning the government. Likewise Google turned over email records on Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a federal contractor, over his conversations about North Korea with Fox news.

This is not the first time that the Obama administration has asked telecommunication companies to turn over records on journalists. In 2010 the federal government asked for the phone records of New York Times reporter James Risen for his investigation of Operation Merlin, a failed attempt by the Clinton administration to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by supplying misleading information on key technology.

"Every president wants to control the message, but this administration has taken things to a different level," Kathleen McClellan, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower support organization, told the Los Angeles Times. "They have indicted a record number of people under the Espionage Act, and they have been very willing to go after journalists."

Not surprisingly, Verizon recently ranked lowest in an annual report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on which companies protect their customers best. (Google did much better) Nor is Verizon ashamed of this record – the company is now hawking its abilities to collect and sell information on user behavior.

Verizon Cooperation

The AP published a report in May 2012 that a person in Yemen was planning to launch a suicide attack on a U.S. bound plane using an underwear bomb. The report suggested that the Obama administration had misled or lied to the public about the existence of the plot.

The U.S. Department of Justice asked Ronald Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney in Washington, to investigate the matter. A subpoena was issued to Verizon (and possibly others) for 21 phone lines in five AP offices (including one that has been shut down six years ago, according to David Schulz, AP’s chief lawyer. Verizon turned over the data “without any attempt to obtain permission to tell them so the reporters could ask a court to quash the subpoena.”

Federal officials later claimed that it has the legal authority to ask for the records. But media organizations say that the request sets a dangerous precedent.

The Obama administration is sending a message “that if you talk to the press, we’re going to go after you,” said Gary Pruitt, CEO of AP. “Officials who would normally talk to us, and people we would talk to in the normal course of news gathering, are already saying to us that they’re a little reluctant to talk to us; they fear that they will be monitored by the government.”

The compliance of Verizon is not surprising – the company routinely approves federal government requests to track customers. Recently revealed court documents show that in July 2008 Verizon secretly reprogrammed a wireless internet card belonging to Daniel David Rigmaiden to allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to track him for alleged tax fraud.

Activists say that the company should not have complied with the government as no legitimate warrant was provided. “It shows you just how crazy the technology is, and (supports) all the more the need to explain to the court what they are doing,” Hanni Fakhoury, an EFF staff attorney, told Wired magazine. “This is more than just (saying to Verizon) give us some records that you have sitting on your server. This is reconfiguring and changing the characteristics of the (suspect's) property, without informing the judge what’s going on.”

Google Cooperation

Google has also just been revealed to have turned over data on James Rosen (whose name is almost identical to the New York Times reporter) of Fox news about his emails with Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department contractor, about North Korea’s nuclear program in June 2009.

An affidavit provided to Google by Reginald Reyes of the FBI justified the requests stating that Rosen had acted “at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in criminal violations of the Espionage Act.

Kim’s lawyers disagree. “To begin, it is not now – nor has it ever been – a crime to talk to the media,” says Abbe Lowell on a support website. “Second, the subject matter of the news article in question in this case was hardly remarkable — reporting on what a foreign country would do or not do when that was already in the public and something that country had done before and something that everyone knew the foreign country would do. The government leaks far more sensitive information to the media every day as part of its normal business.”

Not surprisingly the media is up in arms about this case too. To treat “routine news-gathering efforts as evidence of criminality is extremely troubling and corrodes time-honored understandings between the public and the government about the role of the free press,” says Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“The Rosen case follows other signs that the administration has gone overboard in its zeal to find and muzzle insiders,” wrote the New York Times in an editorial. “Obama administration officials often talk about the balance between protecting secrets and protecting the constitutional rights of a free press. Accusing a reporter of being a “co-conspirator,” on top of other zealous and secretive investigations, shows a heavy tilt toward secrecy and insufficient concern about a free press.  

Who to Avoid and How

Every year, EFF publishes a scorecard titled “Who Has Your Back?” on the privacy record of major technology companies. The 2013 report which came out just before the Associated Press and Fox scandals broke, put Verizon last.

“When you use the Internet, you entrust your conversations, thoughts, experiences, locations, photos, and more to companies like Google, AT&T and Facebook,” wrote the authors. “But what do these companies do when the government demands your private information? Do they stand with you? Do they let you know what’s going on?”

There are ways around Verizon though - Wired magazine has just published a guide on how future whistleblowers can communicate safely with the media. “We now live in a world where public servants informing the public about government behavior or wrongdoing must practice the tradecraft of drug dealers and spies. Otherwise, these informants could get caught in the web of administrations that view George Orwell’s 1984 as an operations manual.”

Mind you, it is not just reporters who need to be wary of Verizon. The Wall Street Journal reports that the company launched a product in October 2012 called Precision Market Insights which “offers businesses like malls, stadiums and billboard owners statistics about the activities and backgrounds of cellphone users in particular locations.”

Chris Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Journal that all this information could easily end up in the hands of federal investigators. "It's the collection that's the scary part, not the business use,” he said.

One again, there are ways to protect your online privacy: here is a recent guide from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. It is also worth checking out some old but wise suggestions by Stanton McCandlish of EFF.