The New York Times has received documents claimed to be disclosed from the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower, Edward Snowden, that detail the closeness of the relationship between the NSA and US cellular network, AT&T. The industry has been aware of the requirement of the carriers to cooperate with the US government when it comes to Internet monitoring, thanks to the legal framework put in place, but the depth of AT&T’s involvement was not known until now. Even in the scope of the National Security Agency’s significant budget for electronic snooping, the amount that is spent on joint ventures with AT&T is around twice that the budget spent with other carriers. This includes the installation of monitoring equipment at AT&T cell sites, and AT&T working as a test bed for new NSA tracking and surveillance technologies.
The document details that AT&T is the first of the US cellular networks to enable a new system with improved surveillance functionality under a project codenamed “Fairview.” The new system was activated in late 2003 and can provide the NSA with a live Internet tap. Because billions of emails pass through AT&T’s servers, the National Security Agency was able to tap into the United Nations building, thanks to the relationship built up with the US carrier. We’ve already seen the NSA criticized by foreign governments because of allegations that it has attempted to eavesdrop on politicians. Furthermore, because AT&T’s servers handle international data, the US carrier has voluntarily handed over what is called “foreign-to-foreign” data for several years. By 2013, AT&T was reputed to be handling sixty million foreign-to-foreign emails a day and the documents reveal that a significant proportion of these were acquired via AT&T’s systems.
AT&T provided a statement following the allegations: “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.” This is very much an as expected response: the carriers cite national security reasons as to why they are unable to comment further, as does the NSA when asked. It is therefore unclear how deep the relationship continues following the Snowden leaks and structural changes in the law.