AT&T and the NSA have worked hand in hand to install a vast internet monitoring system, with the telecoms firm aiding spies in wiretapping the United Nations. Although it’s been well known for some time that all of the telecommunications firms are obliged to work with the National Security Agency (NSA) on internet monitoring, courtesy of a number of legal requirements, the scale to which AT&T was in bed with the government has not been realized until now.
NSA documents, freshly disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden and obtained by the NY Times, detail the relationship between the two organizations in the decade leading up to 2013.
It’s no small endeavor, either. The NSA has a vast budget to, among other things, install monitoring equipment at AT&T sites, said to be more than twice that of what it spends with other telecoms firms.
At least seventeen of AT&T’s US-based internet hubs have NSA surveillance tech installed, well in excess of those located at Verizon sites. Meanwhile, AT&T has stepped up as a test-bed for new NSA tracking systems, working as “a partnership” with the government agency as it refines its spying.
In late 2003, for instance, AT&T is said to have been the first of the NSA’s telecoms partners to switch on a new system as part of its Fairview program, the codename given to operations with AT&T, which was described as giving the agency a “live” tap on internet traffic.
The net catches plenty, too. As well as the billions of emails that pass through AT&T’s servers, the NSA also used its relationship with the carrier to tap the United Nations building, the documents reveal.
Previously, the NSA has been criticized by foreign governments for its attempts to eavesdrop on their politicians. Surveillance of German chancellor Angela Merkel, revealed in the Wikileaks files, prompted the country to drop Verizon as its ISP of choice, for instance.
The NSA is believed to refer to its operations with Verizon as Stormbrew.
Even those outside of the US aren’t safe from the monitoring, it’s suggested. Since so much web traffic passes through AT&T’s servers, the NSA has had access to this so-called “foreign-to-foreign” data which the telecoms provider has supposedly been handing over – voluntarily – for several years.
By 2013, when Verizon joined in and began passing the agency similar data from its own network, the NSA is said to have been processing 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails every day, a “massive” portion of which presumably came from AT&T’s pipes.
AT&T and Verizon have declined to comment on the revelations, citing national security, as has the NSA. It’s also unclear to what extent the data handover continues today, especially given the greater scrutiny to internet privacy in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks.
Update: AT&T provided SlashGear with the following statement:
“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.”