Telecommunications giant AT&T has provided extensive assistance to the U.S. National Security Agency, allowing the agency to conduct unlawful surveillance on huge volumes of Internet traffic passing through the United States. The revelations come after analysis of newly disclosed NSA documents.
The documents were from 2003 to 2013 and are the latest revelation unearthed by whistleblowing NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Though it has been known that American telecommunications companies work closely with the spy agency, the new documents show that the government’s questionable relationship with AT&T has special status within the agency and is considered a prime intelligence asset.
Its also lucrative for AT&T, who receives tens of millions of dollars every year for enabling the rampant surveillance.
One document described the relationship as “highly collaborative,” while another praised the company’s “extreme willingness to help.”
The leaked documents show how the NSA’s relationship with AT&T has enabled the agency to conduct surveillance, under various legal loopholes, of international and foreign-to-foreign Internet communications that passed through its U.S. network. The program also allows the mass collection of data on ordinary, law abiding, citizens.
The NSA then assembles the collected data from AT&T into extensive dossiers on virtually every U.S. citizen and most citizens of the developed world.
AT&T installed NSA surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its U.S. datacenters, notably more than the agency placed in competitor Verizon Communications Inc’s Internet hubs. AT&T engineers are also the first to test new spying technologies invented by the NSA.
“This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship,” according to one NSA document, despite the fact the company profits handsomely from spying on its customers.
AT&T’s “corporate relationships provide unique accesses to other telecoms and I.S.P.s [internet service providers],” read another document.
In 2011 the company started the now infamous program in which it provided the NSA with more than 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records each day after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.”
The scope of AT&T’s reach is stunning. Vast amounts of the entire planet’s Internet communications pass across the company’s U.S. cables. The company went out of its way to allow the NSA to access this data gold mine years before Verizon started to do so in March 2013.
The documents also show that the company gave significant technical assistance to the NSA in carrying out wiretapping of all Internet communications at the headquarters of the United Nations, who happened to be an AT&T customer.
AT&T spokesman Brad Burns downplayed the role the company played, stating “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. For example, in a kidnapping situation we could provide help tracking down called numbers to assist law enforcement.”
AT&T refused to comment any further on the report or directly address the massive fees the company was paid for its collaboration.
The program, and lucrative business relationship, continue to this day and have expanded in scope since 2013. It is now widely assumed that every single bit of internet traffic is logged and analyzed by the NSA, who operates one of the largest computing facilities on the planet.