AT&T and NSA: Happy Together

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

August 17, 2015

“We do not voluntarily provide information to any investigating authorities other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence,” Brad Burns, an AT&T spokesman, said.   That was the extent of the company’s reaction to a New York Times article implicating AT&T in a massive collaborative effort with the NSA stretching more than a decade, except to add the perfunctory, convenient rejoinder, “We don’t comment on matters of national security.” But, according to sources, AT&T has a lot of explaining to do to alter perceptions on its cozy relationship with the agency of which a document labels its attitude as “an extreme willingness to help.”

Their cooperation has involved a broad range of classified activities, according to the documents, which date from 2003 to 2013. AT&T has given the N.S.A. access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T. Moreover, the NSA’s top-secret budget in 2013 for AT&T involvement was twice as large as that of any other program.

Learning this was going on, and after the extent of the involvement had been leaked by Edward Snowden, some Silicon Valley companies expressed outrage and rolled out new encrypting programs to thwart NSA intrusion. Not so the telecommunications companies, allegedly including Verizon. Even in this area the depths of the government’s tentacles can be seen as they have initiated court cases to keep the identities of the telecom partners secret. To further this aim, the NSA’s Special Source Operation, which is responsible for more than 80% of collected data, has designated these corporate collaborators by code names.

By all accounts, the clandestine relationships go back as far as 1985 with a program called Fairview. It has yet to be proven but it is possible that the breakup of the “Bells” which left AT&T as an entity, might have occurred with the blessing of the government because it would benefit the nascent collaboration of the NSA and them. An example of how joined-at-the-hip Fairview (NSA) and AT&T were, in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake in 2011 which destroyed a Fairview fiber-optic cable, it was repaired simultaneously as a cable serving AT&T. In addition, the Fairview program, using an AT&T Internet connection in conducting surveillance of the United Nations in 2013.

Documents point to other relationships with telecoms, notably Verizon and the ten MCI, later purchased by Verizon. In an operation revealed as Stormbrew used Verizon cable capabilities in conducting surveillance. Both MCI and AT&T were linked to warrantless wiretapping by the Bush administration after 9/11, though obliquely. By the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the flow of information that AT&T was handing over soared over a billion domestic cellphone records a day which it was turning over.

The companies’ sorting of data has allowed the N.S.A. to bring different surveillance powers to bear. Targeting someone on American soil requires a court order under FISA . When a foreigner abroad is communicating with an American, that law permits the government to target that foreigner without a warrant. When foreigners are messaging other foreigners, that law does not apply and the government can collect such emails in bulk without targeting anyone. With relation to emails, AT&T gave access to the NSA whereby it was processing an alarming 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails a day by 2013- and this voluntarily as they were not compelled by law or warrant to do so.

This corporate collaboration raises serious conflict of interest, as well as justice issues. When the government can creep into private lives, and do so in a sanctioned way, alarm bells should go off. Where is the outrage- or how we become so cowed, so immune, perhaps so inured to government intrusion that we lack the energy to respond. The hope is that articles such as this will keep the privacy fires stoked- especially as we see the end of one administration and a new one about a year ahead on the horizon.

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