Government giving AT&T, others secret immunity from wiretap laws

DoJ helps AT&T, other service providers evade wiretapping laws so government can conduct Internet surveillance

Published April 24, 2013 8:10PM (EDT)


One of the major privacy concerns fueling opposition to CISPA is that the legislation would permit the private sector to acquire and search sensitive data relating to U.S. citizens between corporations and the government. However, according to government documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), such personal data sharing and surveillance is well underway already, while CISPA is yet to come up for a Senate vote.

As CNET reported Wednesday, "Senior Obama administration officials have secretly authorized the interception of communications carried on portions of networks operated by AT&T and other Internet service providers, a practice that might otherwise be illegal under federal wiretapping laws." The Justice Department has been granting immunity to service providers through special "2511" letters that absolve carriers in the event that the surveillance is found to run afoul of federal law. As such, the DoJ is secretly enabling AT&T and others to evade wiretapping laws so that the government can conduct surveillance on parts of their networks.

"The Justice Department is helping private companies evade federal wiretap laws," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which obtained over 1,000 pages of internal government documents, told CNET. "Alarm bells should be going off." Via CNET:

The secret legal authorization from the Justice Department originally applied to a cybersecurity pilot project in which the military monitored defense contractors' Internet links. Since then, however, the program has been expanded by President Obama to cover all critical infrastructure sectors including energy, healthcare, and finance starting June 12.

AT&T is thus far the only named service provider to have received a "2511" immunity letter, but other telecom firms are believed to have also received immunity. As the Verge pointed out, "it won't be the first time":

AT&T was given retroactive immunity for their role in NSA surveillance programs after the once-illegal domestic spying practices set in motion under the Bush administration were codified into law under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. That law was passed two years after AT&T technician Mark Klein revealed evidence that the telecom had cooperated with the NSA, installing routing equipment inside a secret room at a network hub in San Francisco.

Crucially, if CISPA passes, the immunity letters may no longer even be necessary -- preexisting wiretap laws will be overridden and the ability for the private sector and government to share citizens' data will be close to unbridled. As such, in light of EPIC's findings, CISPA, like the NDAA, can be seen to retroactively inscribe into law activity the government has already been carrying out in secret.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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2511 Letters At&t Cispa Internet Privacy Surveillance Wiretap