Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) gave an incendiary speech at the DEF CON hacker conference at the weekend, accusing major US wireless carriers of willingly helping the government spy on its citizens and making money in the process.
Wyden explained that wireless carriers are unable to resist government pressure to cooperate, as they rely upon FCC licenses to be able to use the airwaves. As a consequence, the wireless carriers and their predecessors have been a fundamental tool for the government eavesdropping for decades, and continue to serve their purpose today.
“This issue is fundamentally about more than just privacy. These programs are the building blocks that Donald Trump and his allies will use to increase the surveillance state and use it against their enemies,” Wyden said.
He praised the hackers in the room for their service to the country:
“White-hat hackers do our country an enormous service. Hackers also make it harder for the government to hide when it spies on Americans or collects their information.”
“The strength of our hacker community makes America stronger and Americans safer. Thrilled to have the opportunity to speak at #defcon today about the importance of privacy, backdoor-free encryption, and overseeing our intelligence community. Thank you for having me!”
The government’s mass surveillance programs started almost 100 years ago, and evolved constantly over time, Wyden explained.
In the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the NSA strengthened surveillance on Americans, until the StellarWind program was revealed. Legislation passed in 2007 granted retroactive immunity for the communication companies for cooperating with the NSA on the program.
“You can’t do dragnet surveillance without the private sector being willing,” Wyden said.
Even today, the government is covertly carrying on its surveillance programs.
“Earlier this year, the U.S. Inspector General revealed that the DEA had operated an illegal bulk spying program for 20 years. This was one of the most illegal dragnet surveillance programs ever,” he noted.
“Who signed off on it? [Current U.S. Attorney General] William Barr, when he was Attorney General in 1992. The total number of countries targeted has been hidden, but it’s known that the program involved billions of phone calls,” he added.
“Not a single phone company ever pushed back” against the program, Wyden said. “In fact, they all got paid.”
“AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile all sold data. The data was available to anyone who could pay. It was clear they were doing business with bounty hunters after they said they stopped. I’m not giving them any benefit of the doubt, and neither should you,” he said
Section 215 of the Patriot Act is going to expire at the end of this year. Wyden underlined the importance of civic participation, by contacting their senators through mails and calls to ask them not to renew section 215. He also thanked whistleblowers that exposed secret programs.