AT&T helped NSA spy on United Nations, foreign emails and 1.1 billion US phone calls per day

originally published on ConsumerAffairs

This has been an especially rough summer for the poor devils working in AT&T’s public relations department (to say nothing of the poor devils who are actual AT&T customers). Two months ago, the feds levied a record-breaking $100 million fine against the company for its practice of throttling the connections of unlimited data customers – to the extent that customers with “unlimited” plans actually got as little as one-sixth as much data per billing period as was available to customers of AT&T’s then-lowest metered-data plan.

(The company is fighting the fine in court, arguing that its data-throttling activities didn’t actually harm any consumers, and the fine should be reduced from $100 million to no more than $16,000.)

Though perhaps the throttled-data folks did turn out to be the lucky ones. After all: the less data you send and receive over AT&T’s network, the less data AT&T can share with the Feds about you. Just yesterday, ProPublica and the New York Times reported that an in-depth analysis of documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden shows that AT&T has shown an “extreme willingness to help” the National Security Agency spy on people’s electronic communications, to the point where, by 2011, the company gave the NSA more than a billion domestic cellphone records every single day, as the Times said:

In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the N.S.A. after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” according to an internal [NSA] newsletter. This revelation is striking because after Mr. Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.

Mass surveillance

This domestic (in-country) spying is in addition to what the company is doing in the rest of the world: “by 2013 the program was processing 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails a day.”

But American citizens and residents, plus email address holders throughout the world, aren’t the only ones AT&T is monitoring on behalf of the NSA; the company also helped the agency spy on all Internet traffic at United Nations headquarters in New York City. (Previous Snowden documents said that such activities were going on, but didn’t identify the telecom responsible.) The United Nations paid AT&T $1 million per year to operate its fiber optic network.

Of course, AT&T is hardly the only company turning over massive amounts of data to the NSA. Remember that in summer 2013, when news first broke of secret documents confirming that the NSA and FBI were indeed engaged in mass surveillance of pretty much everything that went through the central servers of leading U.S. Internet companies (and before former NSA contractor Edward Snowden publicly revealed himself to be the source), initial reports mentioned nine Internet companies cooperating with the program: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

Meanwhile, the first telecom named as part of the surveillance program was not AT&T but Verizon, as Glenn Greenwald reported for the Guardian on June 6, 2013: “The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.”

Decades-long partnership with government

So why is AT&T singled out for special attention? Partly because the public has only now learned certain AT&T-specific details, but mainly because even by post-9/11 standards, wherein American companies and organizations can be legally obligated to both support government spying efforts and say nothing about it (thus giving rise to the practice of “warrant canaries”), AT&T has been unusually willing to cooperate with the National Security Agency. Other companies might be forced to hand data over to the government, whereas AT&T is more likely to volunteer.

For that matter, AT&T’s partnership with the NSA apparently started in 1985, well before the 9/11 terrorist attacks offered any justification for mass government surveillance.

In 1984, the old “Ma Bell” telephone monopoly was broken up, with pieces of it transformed into other companies. Ma Bell’s former long-distance division became AT&T Communications. The following year, that new company became a secret partner in the NSA’s then-new “Fairview” program.

Not that AT&T or the NSA has admitted to this; such information only became disclosed yesterday, after the New York Times and ProPublica deciphered the NSA documents and published their findings. As ProPublica said:

An analysis of the Fairview documents by The Times and ProPublica reveals a constellation of evidence that points to AT&T as that program’s partner. Several former intelligence officials confirmed that finding. A Fairview fiber-optic cable, damaged in the 2011 earthquake in Japan, was repaired on the same date as a Japanese-American cable operated by AT&T. Fairview documents use technical jargon specific to AT&T. And in 2012, the Fairview program carried out the court order for surveillance on the Internet line, which AT&T provides, serving the United Nations headquarters.

Indeed, the NSA’s very ability to capture mass Internet traffic on American soil is based on the agency’s “extraordinary, decadeslong partnership” with AT&T.

“Extreme willingness to help”

One internal NSA document described the collaboration with AT&T as “highly collaborative” and another praised the company for its “extreme willingness to help.”

Despite all of this, AT&T has publicly maintained that it shares people’s private data with the government “only to the extent required by the law,” as it said in a December 2013 letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (.pdf here).

More recently, AT&T spokesman Brad Burns said in a joint statement to ProPublica and the New York Times that “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.”

In light of the 1.1 billion American cellphone calling records which AT&T shares with the NSA every single day, compared to the 318.9 million people who live in the United States, Burns’ statement and that previous SEC filing suggest one of two possibilities must be true:

1. On average, a typical American citizen or resident gets kidnapped, held hostage or otherwise in need of time-sensitive life-saving surveillance-requiring police assistance more than three times per day, every day; or

2. The extent of spying and surveillance “required by the law” is far greater than anybody previously imagined.