AT&T is in the hot seat again after an article came out in the New York Times about the telecom’s decade-long special relationship with the NSA. AT&T is still trying to deny their willing partnership with the agency, but newly revealed Snowden documents show that their help has been vital to NSA surveillance activities. And they may still be secretly maintaining the same affiliation up to now. This relationship could revive previous debates over the unconstitutionality of the NSA’s Internet backbone wiretapping project.
AT&T Has Been Instrumental to the NSA’s Spy Program
AT&T’s statement following the article in the Times, delivered by spokesperson Brad Burns, contradicts the accusations of willing cooperation with the NSA. The company says that any help given to government agencies is not voluntary, unless the situation is life-threatening or time sensitive. Burns also said that the telecom will not make any statement regarding issues of national security. This short statement sounds suspicious to us, like some kind of evasive maneuver. What really constitutes an emergency for them? How many times have conditions like these been twisted to suit the whims of agencies like the NSA? AT&T denies their enthusiastic level of involvement with the spy project, but the documents taken from NSA files clearly define the relationship as a very chummy one. And while Silicon Valley was outraged by the revealed spying and immediately began setting up encryption against it, telecoms like AT&T and Verizon kept mum and did nothing to ensure their users’ protection.
The documents show that the NSA was running a decade-long project in 2003 designed to tap the Internet backbone from within the US. To accomplish this, they needed powerful partners who had access to a ton of Internet traffic. The document shared with the New York Times by Edward Snowden shows two programs, Stormbrew and Fairview, which depended on the cooperation of unnamed companies. The Times along with the investigative team at ProPublica did a lot of digging and found a load of evidence proving that Verizon was the agency’s partner in the Stormbrew program, and AT&T was their key in the Fairview program.
Without a doubt, as one of the biggest telecoms in the country, AT&T has played a vital role in filtering the massive amounts of data coursing through them via the Internet on a daily basis. The NSA told AT&T how to process the data and send it to their servers for analysis and storage. And they did so at least until 2013, through the surveillance system that the two established together. AT&T has even set up at least 17 of their US Internet hubs with surveillance equipment for the NSA, and they were the first spy partners to test any new technologies introduced by the agency. The system is further described in detail in one document, a chart showing the network access permissions that allowed the NSA to see all the traffic that passed through AT&T – which by the way includes some traffic from other telecoms that comes through by peer agreements. Mark Klein, a technician at AT&T for 20 years, had actually testified to this way back in 2006. The case was a class action suit against AT&T under the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). His words did not get the attention they deserved.
AT&T is of course not the only telecom that has allowed the NSA to access their data streams. But they are under fire now because of how central their help was to the massive spy program and how the company so eagerly accommodated the shady requests of the agency. They were instrumental in allowing the NSA to spy on people through foreign and international communications that passed over their network. The documents detail the various ways that AT&T used to share billions of emails with the agency, and even how they helped the NSA to execute a secret wiretap court order that covered all the Internet communications of one especially interesting customer, the United Nations headquarters. AT&T was so helpful that in 2013 they got the largest NSA secret project budget by far.
What’s Really Wrong With Email Intercepts
As a side note, an explanation about spying on emails may help us to better understand why AT&T is being so viciously attacked. First of all, an email is not sent as is, whole and untouched, like regular mail is. Email, like other electronic communications, gets chopped up and sent in pieces known as packets. These data packets are then sent along via different routes through the Internet. So, when the NSA wants to get an email of a terror suspect for instance, they have to hold out a large net and collect a bunch of packets, including those for other people’s emails. That net is set up and monitored by AT&T, and the captured packets are filtered by them as well, then the resulting take is sent by them to agency servers. The way that these emails are collected and filtered is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights, and AT&T is happily doing all the dirty work.
AT&T is such a valued NSA asset because of its large network and peering agreements. This peering means that other telecoms are sometimes using AT&T’s network (and vice versa). It allows communications to be sent along the fastest available routes, like how traffic is redirected during rush hour. So AT&T actually has access to the emails of people who aren’t even their customers. Peering was developed to make Internet communications more efficient, but AT&T is using it to scoop up more data packets for the NSA.
Will the Courts Help?
The EFF has helped a lot of people to file cases against the NSA and companies like AT&T for their violations. Most courts are staying far away from these cases, claiming national security concerns. They don’t want to get caught up in the mess that is inevitable when dealing with accusations of acts that violate the constitution. Only the FISA Court will hear them, and this secret court is known for listening only to the government. In addition, all their decisions remain top secret. So far, the government has at least admitted that the NSA surveillance programs do infringe on Fourth Amendment rights, though only minimally. With this, the court dismissed much of the case that former AT&T technician Klein testified in, ignoring the points that the plaintiffs made on constitutional violations. The EFF will be presenting this latest evidence to the court anyway, hoping that the additional information will help move things along and that the government will not be able to protect their secret spy partners forever.