Starting in 2011 AT&T (NYSE: T) began handing over 1.1 billion domestic wireless calling records per day to the National Security Agency (NSA) after a push to get such a program started before the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to a New York Times report.
The report, done in conjunction with a report from ProPublica, was based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Sowden and cited an internal agency newsletter for the information on the cell phone records. The reports also underscore that AT&T in particular has been a vital partner for the NSA in capturing Internet traffic. The documents described the relationship as "highly collaborative," while another praised the company's "extreme willingness to help."
The cell phone calling records program is notable because after Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans' phone calls, the report notes, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, the program consisted mostly of landline phone records.
"We don't comment on matters of national security," an AT&T spokesman told the NYT.
AT&T spokesman Fletcher Cook said the company follows the law in dealing with government requests. "We do not provide information to any investigating authorities without a court order or other mandatory process other than if a person's life is in danger and time is of the essence," such as in a kidnapping, he told Bloomberg. Cook said the company didn't have anything else to add.
In June President Barack Obama signed into law the USA Freedom Act, which transfers storage of U.S. phone metadata to phone companies and away from the NSA. Metadata is the term often used for logs of calls placed from one number to another, and the time and the duration of those contacts, but not the content of what was said. The phone companies will start handling the storage of that around the end of the year and the NSA will need to petition a special foreign intelligence surveillance court to search through the records.
Although the documents do not specifically name AT&T, the documents point to evidence that AT&T is indeed the company that the NSA works with under a program called "Fairview." For example, the report said, a Fairview fiber-optic cable, damaged in the 2011 earthquake in Japan, was repaired on the same date as a Japanese-American cable operated by AT&T. Additionally, Fairview documents use technical terms that are specific to AT&T. Meanwhile, in 2012 the Fairview program carried out the court order for surveillance on the Internet line, which AT&T provides, serving the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
The report said AT&T has been involved as an NSA partner in a broad range of classified activities, which date from 2003 to 2013. AT&T has given the spy agency access to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks, and the telco installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs on American soil, far more than Verizon (NYSE: VZ), the report said. AT&T engineers were also the first to try out new surveillance technologies invented by the NSA.
It's unclear how the reports might affect AT&T and customers' perceptions of the carrier. While there may be some blowback, the negative reaction could be muted since many people assumed AT&T was violating their privacy already and that "they were in cahoots with the government," Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Bloomberg.
"Their customers deserve to know what they are doing with their most private and intimate communications," said Cohn, whose group sued the NSA on behalf of AT&T customers in 2008.
- see this NYT article
- see these two separate ProPublica articles
- see this Bloomberg article
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