Following the report earlier this week that the FBI regularly broke the ECPA law, in obtaining information from telcos without going through the proper process (and, in some cases using just a post it note!), some interesting details from the full report have come to light. The two key ones? First, "the Obama administration issued a secret rule almost two weeks ago saying it was legal for the FBI to have skirted federal privacy protections." And, second, the original idea to use these bogus "exigent letters" didn't come from the FBI, but from an AT&T employee. We noted in the original report that no one seemed to be placing any blame on the telcos for allowing this, and why they're clearly abusing the law, in giving out such info without the proper rules being followed, seems like a big question:
The telecom employees were supposed to be responding to National Security Letters, which are essentially FBI-issued subpoenas. But those Patriot Act powers say the target must be part of an open investigation and that a supervisor has to approve it. While they require some paperwork, FBI agents have been issuing about 40,000 such NSLs a year.
But an AT&T employee provided the unit with a way around some of those requirements. The employee introduced them to so-called 'exigent letters.' Those letters, first used immediately following 9/11, asked for information by saying that the request was an emergency and that prosecutors were preparing a grand jury subpoena. The letter falsely promised that the subpoena, which gives the telecoms legal immunity, would be delivered later, the report said.
What's more, the report noted that the cozy relationship between the bureau and the telecoms made it hard to differentiate between the FBI and the nation's phone companies.
"The FBI's use of exigent letters became so casual, routine and unsupervised that employees of all three communication service providers told us that they -- the company employees-- sometimes generated the exigent letters for CAU personnel to sign and return," the inspector general reported.
In fact, one AT&T employee even created a short cut on his desktop to a form letter that he could print out for a requesting FBI agent to sign.