Controversial government program gives ISPs immunity from wiretapping laws

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Under a government surveillance program, at least two internet service providers (ISPs) have received legal immunity from wiretapping laws – meaning the ISPs wouldn't be prosecuted for the surveillance of customers' network traffic and, subsequently, handing that information over to the government.

A privacy rights group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), became privy to the actions after it obtained government documents it requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

On Wednesday, CNET broke the news about the findings, which were extracted from more than 1,000 pages of government documents that EPIC received.   

According to the documents, the Department of Justice gave AT&T and CenturyLink, a Monroe, La.-based ISP, a “2511 letter” – a measure named after a provision of the federal Wiretap Act. These letters allow the public sector to access internet traffic from ISPs participating in a voluntary government initiative called the Enhanced Cybersecurity Services (ECS) program, which was launched in 2011 as a pilot. 

The letters give companies legal immunity should they violate the Wiretap Act when sharing network communications, an action the government would normally have to receive permission from the courts for.

Following the ECS' debut, when it was referred to as the Defense Industrial Base (DIB) Cyber Pilot, its mission was to help defense contractors protect their networks from cyber attacks. The ECS program was expanded in February 2013 to allow participation from all critical infrastructure companies and their ISPs. 

On Friday, Amie Stepanovich, the director of EPIC's domestic surveillance project, told SCMagazine.com that the ISP communications the government was able to monitor under the program were “very broad.”

“They were able to get just about any communications that went through that network,” Stepanovich said. “They wanted IP addresses, email addresses or any information that could be used to combat a cyber threat.”

On the DHS site, both AT&T and CenturyLink are listed as service providers that are “approved to provide ECS services.”

Stepanovich said that the ECS program has provisions similar to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), but on a narrower scope. CISPA is a controversial threat information-sharing bill that was passed last Thursday by the House of Representatives and now awaits a Senate vote.

“This program [was] set up as a successful model to base CISPA on,” Stepanovich said of ECS, later adding that, if implemented, “CISPA would roll out this type of monitoring, [but] on individuals' networks.”

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