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Whistleblower Reveals AT&T/NSA Menace to Public: Part 1

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Whistleblower Mark Klein
(image by Linda Klein)

My guest today is Mark Klein, AT&T/NSA whistleblower. Welcome to OpEdNews, Mark.

JB: Please tell us about your career at AT&T. How long did you work there and what did you do?

MK: I was hired by AT&T in 1981 in New York City with the title of Communications Technician and worked 22 years for the company. Since I had a background in computers, I did not do traditional phone work but was assigned to a computer room in the Thomas Street office in Manhattan during the '80s. The computers in this room were used by other technicians across the country to test data circuits and keep track of "trouble tickets" for record-keeping. My job was to keep the computers up and running, and answer calls from technicians who had trouble accessing the computers to do their work.

This was interesting work, as it enabled me to become familiar with the latest computer technology and fix things. Newer computers were quickly moved in to replace those that had become obsolete, as technology moves fast: at first, we used primitive DEC PDP machines, which then were replaced by the workhorse DEC VAX machines, using early packet-switched networks which were evolving into the internet as we know it today.

I also engaged in some labor struggles. Mine was a union job and I was a loyal member of the Communications Workers of America. In the early '80s, the old "Ma Bell" was broken up into separate companies by court order, and of course the various companies tried to take advantage of this. I remained with the old "long-distance" company, AT&T, and in 1983 and 1986, I walked the picket lines in national strikes to settle contracts. In 1989, I almost got fired for refusing to cross the picket lines of the "local company" (Nynex) technicians who had struck for their own, separate contract; my job was saved with the union's help.

By the end of the decade, I saw how technology was moving towards miniaturization that would affect my job, e.g., the washing-machine-size hard drives used to store/retrieve data were about to be replaced by desktop drives, and the thick wire cables were being replaced by thin fiber optics that could carry vastly more data. This translated into fewer jobs.

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Thus began a period of endless "downsizing" at AT&T, and since I was at the bottom of seniority, I was continually worried about being laid off. In 1991, I was pushed out of the computer room by one such downsizing, and decided to take another AT&T job in the San Francisco Bay area, where I entered Dilbert's "cubicle world" in Pleasanton, sitting at a desk with a screen and phone, handling the testing and "turn-up" of new circuits that spanned the country. This had some interesting aspects, such as talking to technicians across the country in working on new installations, but was also highly stressful, since one had to deal with often angry customers. I tried to get out of this situation--at one point, I got a nice job working as an operator at AT&T's marine radio station KMI located in Point Reyes National Seashore, answering radio calls from ships in the Pacific that wanted to be patched into the phone network. This was lots of fun, in a beautiful location, but it didn't last, as the job was soon phased out in favor of satellite phones. So I went back to Pleasanton.

In 1998, I got another chance to escape, when I was accepted for a technician job at a small AT&T office in San Francisco that maintained routers and fiber optic lines that went to Asia (Japan, Indonesia, China, Australia, etc.), as well as banks of phone modems commonly used then for dialing into the internet. It was in this office that my encounter with the NSA began.

JB: You've done a nice job setting the stage. Please continue.

MK: I started work in this office in 1998, but it wasn't until 2002 that the NSA entered the picture. In the summer of that year, we received an email announcing that someone from the National Security Agency would be visiting our office to meet with one of the management people. (This was a small office of six technicians, and we had to do double duty as doormen because there was no security guard.) My hackles went up immediately since I remembered the scandal from the 1970s when it was revealed that the NSA had been doing illegal domestic spying.

Not long after this email notice, a man in a business suit and speaking only a few words arrived, and I directed him to the person he wanted to see-- a management technician who we found out was being cleared for a special job. Word quickly spread that he would be working in a "secret room" which was being installed at a nearby central office at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco. So we inferred, correctly, that the NSA was installing equipment inside AT&T's network. As it turned out, the following year, our old office was shut down by the company and some of us, including myself, were transferred to the Folsom Street office in the fall of 2003. By sheer coincidence, I was assigned to take charge of the internet room, and so I ended up on top of the NSA operation.

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JB: So, one could say that you were in the right place at the right time to closely observe what was going on between AT&T and NSA. What was this operation? Can you give us a sense of the scope of it?

The AT&T engineering documents I collected as part of my job showed clearly what was going on: key fiber optic circuits, called peering links, were being copied wholesale, without any filtering, to the secret room. Peering links are used to connect one network with another--in this case, AT&T's network with other companies and major carriers on the internet. One key document actually listed 16 peering links, their speed and where they went. Qwest, Sprint, Palo Alto Internet Exchange, Abovenet, and Cable & Wireless were some of the names. This meant they were collecting all the communications on the internet--email, web browsing, photos, business transactions, domestic and foreign, everything. And this also meant they were collecting not just AT&T customers but other companies' customers as well, without those companies' knowledge.

Just one of these 16 links had a speed of 2.5 Gigabits per second (Gbit/s), which equates to one quarter of the text of the Encyclopedia Britannica per second. Adding up the capacity of the 16 circuits in that office at the time (some had less capacity), the total was about 15.6 Gbit/s. Multiply that again by the number of secret rooms in the country (17 by the latest revelations) and you can see they were collecting many billions of communications in a single day at AT&T.

JB: Holy moley!

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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