What Limits For Warrantless Wiretapping?

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Dempsey said the debate is over whether we can create a program of supervised flexibility in which all three branches of government have a role to play. But Rivkin advocated keeping the judicial system out of it.

"The relevant committees in Congress have received every bit of information on what was done. There's a difference between congress receiving information and having it come out in open court," Rivkin said.

Matt Blaze, a security researcher and associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania -- and a former AT&T employee -- argued that technology does matter. Pointing out that details of how AT&T transferred information to the Feds were murky, he theorized that the large data pipes inside the AT&T network had been split and filtered by equipment controlled completely by the government.

"This represents a profound shift in the way wiretapping has traditionally been done," he said. "The telcos used to do the filtering on a case-by-case basis. If it's done by the government itself, some inherent technical safeguards just go away."

He added that two surveillance systems he'd studied had properties their designers weren't aware of.

Allowing automated filters to determine which calls are recorded and analyzed removes an important level of oversight, Blaze argued. "We're losing an important technological safeguard, because the scope of those safeguards now determined entirely by filters that have access to purely domestic communications."

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