AT&T and Other ISPs Offered Immunity from Wiretap Law?

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The Justice Department is promising immunity from prosecution to Internet service providers who participate in its efforts to monitor US Internet communications, according to documents obtained under a FOIA request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

The government's surveillance efforts may be illegal under the 1986 Wiretap Act; but letters issued to Dallas-based AT&T and Monroe, Louisiana's CenturyLink offer the ISPs legal cover if there is a future prosecution. If CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act currently making the rounds in Congress, passes in its current form, participation in such surveillance by service providers would be made legal.

According to the documents obtained by EPIC, the Obama Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security, and National Security Agency have been collaborating with private companies on strategies for the monitoring of private Internet networks. Currently named Enhanced Cybersecurity Services, the program was initially implemented to monitor defense contractors, but has been expanded to include what the documents describe as “critical infrastructure” industries. According to CNET, these include energy, healthcare, and finance.

President Obama signed an executive order in February, directing DHS to expand its surveillance efforts "to all critical infrastructure sectors" by the middle of next month. These are loosely defined as companies providing services deemed necessary to the nation's economic security or to public health.

The documents reveal that Justice Department lawyers expressed reservations about the letters before signing off on them. The program mandates that users of surveilled systems will see a banner, warning that their communications are not private.

AT&T has been criticized for its involvement with government snooping in the past. In 2006, it was revealed that the telecom giant permitted the NSA to install surveillance equipment in one of its network hubs. The same year, the company made an explicit claim to own its users confidential information, and the right to use such information to “protect its legitimate business interests.”

EPIC, a public interest group based in Washington, DC, sued the DHS in March 2012 to obtain the documents.

Sources: The Verge, EPIC, CNET, Cornell, Wikipedia