Documents Show AT&T's Close Collaboration With NSA to Spy on Customers

Published: August 16, 2015 2:56 PM /


NSA seal

Yesterday, The New York Times and ProPublica jointly revealed some NSA documents that were provided to them by Edward Snowden. These documents show AT&T had an extremely close relationship with the NSA. Although bulk collection of phone records by the NSA is well known, telecommunications companies are legally obligated to cooperate with the NSA in that case thanks to The Patriot Act (at least the most common interpretation of The Patriot Act, some argue it doesn't actually justify bulk collection of phone records). However, it appears AT&T was unique among telecommunications companies and had an especially close relationship with the NSA, which is described in the documents as "highly collaborative" as well as praising the company's "extreme willingness to help."

The numerous documents that were released are from a decade-long period from 2003 to 2013, and reveal a wide range of activities. AT&T has given the NSA access to billions of emails that have traveled across its network. AT&T also cooperated with the NSA in wiretapping the United Nations headquarters, and turning over all of its Internet communications. The NSA has installed surveillance equipment at 17 of AT&T's Internet hubs in America, and AT&T engineers are the first to test out new surveillance technologies developed by the NSA.

AT&T is not mentioned by name in the document, but is referred to by the code name Fairview. There is strong evidence throughout the documents that makes it clear the Fairview is AT&T, such as references to a Fairview trans-pacific fiber optic cable that was damaged in the Japanese earthquake in 2011 and later repaired, which has details that match up with a cable operated by AT&T. The Fairview program is one of the NSA's oldest operations, dating back to 1985. According to one document, the Fairview division is responsible for more than 80% of the information collected by the NSA.

Another program mentioned in the documents is Stormbrew, which evidence indicates that it refers to Verizon and the former company MCI which was purchased by Verizon. The documents show AT&T's eagerness to assist the NSA compared to MCI. AT&T began turning over phone calls and emails within days of the NSA request when warrantless surveillance began in October 2001, while MCI didn't turn any over until February 2002. In 2003 AT&T was the first company to turn on a new collection capability which the documents claim "amounted to a live presence on the global net" for the NSA. It was also revealed that in 2011, AT&T was giving 1.1 billion domestic cellphone record a day to the NSA, which may come as a surprise to some. At the time of the initial Snowden leaks, it was believed that most collected records came from landlines because of technical reasons.

These documents may not be entirely shocking, many have already speculated on the collaboration between the NSA and AT&T. The EFF has an ongoing lawsuit against the NSA. The lawsuit was filed in 2008, and claims that the NSA and AT&T are working together to violate 4th amendment rights of Americans. The lawsuit was based on documents provided by a former AT&T technician that indicate that the AT&T routed copies of Internet traffic to a room in San Francisco controlled by the NSA. The EFF is hoping these newly released documents will further bolster their case, which is currently under appeal in the Ninth Circuit.

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| Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.