AT&T Reportedly Showed 'Extreme Willingness To Help' NSA Spying
An analysis of documents provided by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed that AT&T participated in a long-standing and "highly collaborative" partnership giving the agency access to billions of e-mails and other online communications on its networks.
Reports describing that relationship in detail were published over the weekend by the New York Times and the non-profit investigative reporting organization ProPublica.
Although previous documents from Snowden have shown that a number of network operators in the U.S. have cooperated on online surveillance activities with the NSA, AT&T's participation has been "unique" and "especially productive," according to the news report published Saturday. The investigation also found that Verizon has participated in a similar program with the NSA.
We contacted both AT&T and Verizon for their responses to the report. A Verizon spokesperson told us the company had no comment. AT&T spokesperson Fletcher Cook said, "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. For example, in a kidnapping situation we could provide help tracking down called numbers to assist law enforcement."
'Fairview' Program Launched in 1985
According to NSA documents, which cover the period from 2003 to 2013, a U.S.-based telecommunications company that is not identified by name entered into a partnership program named "Fairview" with the intelligence agency in 1985. That was after AT&T had taken over the long-distance telephone operations of the Bell Telephone monopoly broken up by federal regulators in 1984. Investigators with the New York Times and ProPublica used a "constellation of evidence" to link Fairview to AT&T.
For example, one NSA document referred to the August 5, 2011, repair of a trans-Pacific communication cable used by the program that had been damaged during the devastating Tohoku earthquake in Japan a month earlier. The only cable reported to be repaired on that date was one operated by AT&T, the investigators found.
The NSA's Fairview partner was providing the agency with more than 1 million e-mails a day and 400 million metadata records from online communications every month by 2003, according to the documents from Snowden. In 2011, that partner was supplying the NSA with 1.1 billion cellphone calling records every day.
"It is not clear if the programs still operate in the same way today," according to the New York Times and ProPublica investigators.
EFF: Latest Report Contradicts Government Claims
Saturday's report was welcomed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online privacy advocacy group that filed suit against the NSA in 2008. That case, Jewel v. NSA, is aimed at stopping the agency's "unconstitutional and ongoing dragnet surveillance" of AT&T customers' communications and records.
Earlier this month, the EFF filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court seeking a ruling that bulk online communications surveillance violates Fourth Amendment protections against reasonable searches and seizures of documents and effects.
The latest findings by the New York Times and ProPublica investigators "not only further confirm our claims in Jewel, but convincingly demolish the government's core response -- that EFF cannot prove that AT&T's facilities were used in the mass surveillance," said EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn. "It's long past time that the NSA and AT&T came clean with the American people."
We reached out to Patrick Toomey, staff attorney for the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, who told us, "The new reports underscore the incredibly close collaboration between the NSA and the country’s major telecommunications companies, which has allowed the NSA to embed itself in the very fabric of the Internet and exposes the communications of innocent Americans to routine spying."
Toomey said that firms such as AT&T and Verizon have often given their customers’ private information over to the NSA voluntarily, without even requiring warrants. "Americans should not have to worry that the companies they entrust with such enormous amounts of sensitive information will simply turn around and give it to the government," he said.