The latest developments in a high-profile criminal probe by special counsel John Durham show the extent to which the world’s internet traffic is being monitored by a coterie of network researchers and security experts inside and outside the government.
Durham has been looking into the origins of the FBI’s investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Recent court filings in his case against cybersecurity lawyer Michael Sussmann, as well as documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal through public records requests, show how U.S. government entities and private cybersecurity companies are able to monitor the flow of web traffic by tapping into vast quantities of data with little oversight or public awareness. Though such technical data doesn’t directly reveal identities or message content, it can at times be reverse-engineered to link online activity back to specific individuals or organizations.
A filing by prosecutors earlier this month said people affiliated with Donald Trump’s 2016 Democratic rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, worked to exploit nonpublic internet traffic data they had access to in order to establish a narrative tying Trump to Russia. Sussmann’s lawyers called the allegations misleading and irrelevant.
The monitoring is made possible by little-scrutinized partnerships, both informal and formal, among cybersecurity companies, telecommunications providers and government agencies. The U.S. government is obtaining bulk data about network usage, according to federal contracting documents and people familiar with the matter, and has fought disclosure about such activities. Academic and independent researchers are sometimes tapped to look at data and share any findings with the government without warrants or judicial authorization.
Unlike the disclosures by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden from nearly a decade ago, which revealed U.S. intelligence programs that relied on covert access to private data streams, the sharing of internet records highlighted by Durham’s probe concerns commercial information that is often being shared with or sold to the government in bulk.
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