New Leaks Confirm AT&T's Position As NSA's Favorite Telco 'Partner'

from the NSA-and-AT&T,-sittin'-on-a-trunk,-s-u-r-v-e-i-l-l-i-n-g dept

We’ve written before about AT&T’s snuggly relationship with intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Not satisfied with being super-responsive to their demands, the telco provider has made proactive efforts over the years to ensure these entities get what they want when they want it… if not sooner.

New documents released by ProPublica shed some more light to the extent of the NSA and AT&T’s relationship. It goes far beyond phone metadata and cell site location info. It covers plenty of internet traffic as well. [Full disclosure: AT&T is my cell phone provider. Goddammit.]

AT&T’s cooperation has involved a broad range of classified activities, according to the documents, which date from 2003 to 2013. AT&T has given the NSA access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.

A collection of slides explaining the NSA’s AT&T-only FAIRVIEW program notes it uses a “corporate partner” to obtain email, VOIP and cloud service data as it rolls off international cables, basically confirming speculation that the NSA has access to the internet “backbone.”

The documents do point out that certain minimization filters are in place to ensure only foreign-to-foreign communications are intercepted, but apparently — as would be the case with any collection of this scope — the occasional “domestic incident” occurs.

The program dates back to 1985, long before President Bush tore up the existing rulebooks to facilitate the NSA’s easy access to communications and data — something AT&T cheerily signed onto immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

AT&T began turning over emails and phone calls “within days” after the warrantless surveillance began in October 2001, the report indicated. By contrast, the other company did not start until February 2002, the draft report said.

With the mechanisms for snagging massive amounts of internet traffic already in place, all AT&T and the NSA had to do was wait for the internet to start filling its surveillance net.

In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed NSA documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the NSA said amounted to a “‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the Fairview program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

While the slideshow appears to show the NSA has access to AT&T’s routing hubs themselves, other documents seem to dispute this claim. A 2012 presentation quoted by ProPublica notes that it has something that seems to work just as efficiently: AT&T itself.

[T]he spy agency does not “typically” have “direct access” to telecoms’ hubs. Instead, the telecoms have done the sifting and forwarded messages the government believes it may legally collect.

Of course, there’s a hedge in there that may actually indicate the opposite: “typically.” Atypical collections occur, apparently, which could mean the NSA does have backbone access. It could be that its backbone access through AT&T is a bit more limited than intercepts it has elsewhere, or that it performs some of this harvesting prior to the data/communications reaching domestic corporate hubs. Either way, it’s definitely not a denial of any sort. But this proactive forwarding system still has its limitations.

“Corporate sites are often controlled by the partner, who filters the communications before sending to NSA,” according to the presentation. This system sometimes leads to “delays” when the government sends new instructions, it added.

These “delays” appear to be what led to the direct “embedding” of AT&T employees with government agencies in order to expedite processing of requests. Further expeditious service was allegedly provided by agents occupying secret rooms in AT&T data centers, which allowed surveillance to be performed in near real time. On top of this, the FBI also unofficially partnered with AT&T to access records using nothing more official than a Post-It note with search parameters written on it.

The documents point out the collections are performed under a variety of legal authorities, even though technically, they’re not really “collections” — not with AT&T pushing records forward rather than simply replying to court orders, NSLs or any other legal paperwork. Of course, the largest piece of the “collection” — foreign-to-foreign communications — is subject to no legal limitations whatsoever. Add this to everything AT&T’s literal “backroom” deal with the government was already generating and the amount of data and communications turned over to the spy agency under a handful of loose legal authorities is breathtaking (from a 2011 NSA document):

This new metadata flow is associated with a cell phone provider and will generate an estimated 1.1 billion cellular records a day in addition to the 700M records delivered currently under the BR FISA.

Is AT&T still this proactive, post-Snowden? It doesn’t appear to be, at least not if you take the single comment provided to ProPublica at face value.

“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,” Brad Burns, an AT&T spokesman, said.

Burns didn’t elaborate, so it’s impossible to say if this only affects certain domestic communications or has a broader impact than just this small sliver of the NSA’s total haul.

The documents show that the NSA is very appreciative of AT&T’s willingness to go above and beyond what is legally required (“extreme willingness to help,” making it probably the first time anyone has praised the company for its customer service skills.

I guess it all depends on who the customer is.

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Comments on “New Leaks Confirm AT&T's Position As NSA's Favorite Telco 'Partner'”

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Agonistes (profile) says:

We know you’re in the pocket of Ma Bell, Tim. What’s AT&T lavishly gifting as payola upon you for this glowing article, 15GB of data for the price of 10GB a month? A basic smartphone with unlimited texting (up to 500/mo) for a measly $20? Or more likely a completely free-with-2 year-contract prototype of one of their mysterious hi-tech “Connected Wearables”. Give this sham up, dude. Its obvious You’ll dance to their tune gladly in the face of such gilded, naked bribery.

mcinsand (profile) says:

Re: Well it certainly wasn't me!

I have YET to have a good customer experience with AT&T. Probably the worst was when it took three months for them to connect my DSL, along with the follow-up incompetence (double-billing me for a number they couldn’t get to work). That wasn’t a new area for them, either, since some of my neighbors in my building had AT&T DSL.

I still have a couple of wireless numbers with them for my children. However, when those contracts are up…

Anonymous Coward says:

What amazes me the most about all the spying...

What amazes me the most about all the spying…isn’t that it is taking place, it isn’t that the populace is pretty much powerless to stop it, it isn’t that so many seem so willing to participate. No, the thing that amazes me the most is how ineffective it is. With all the data, compute cycles and disk space they could have probably cured cancer by now. But they can’t find one single, real terrorist.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Stated goals vs Actual goals

As for catching terrorists, you’re right, their efforts have been beyond laughable.

Either terrorists, all of them, are utterly brilliant and capable of dodging the attentions of an insanely well funded agency and it’s technological capabilities, or maybe, just maybe, the whole ‘terrorists are going to destroy the US any day now unless you sacrifice all your rights’ fearmongering might be a bit overblown.

For catching terrorists, their actions are horribly bad, and in fact downright counter-productive in many ways. For gathering as much data as possible, to be used for whatever you can think of down the line though, for making sure that there’s problems that only they can ‘solve'(because they created them) and ensuring that they’ll continue to get funding… for goals along those lines they’ve been incredibly effective.

Larry says:

Vote with your wallet people

If any of you feel powerless to stop things like this, just stop paying them. There are other providers out there and while they may not be optimal for your particular area, they will improve when the demand signal is there.

I don’t have a single piece of Sony hardware. And I won’t even where they make the best/cheapest product.

I won’t use ATT either. They can’t have my money.

ATT is just SBC under a different name and corporate structure and SBC was worse than Sony or Comcast ever was or is.

Move on with your money and this will end.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Vote with your wallet people

Boycotting won’t fix anything. They have enough business cutomers to survive even if they lose all their consumer business. And willingness to spy sure helps get those government contracts.

On top of all that, AT&T isn’t the problem. It’s the government and sketchy laws they use for mass surveillance. They’re the ones doing the spying. AT&T is just making it easier for them. So boycott the goverment – if that’s even possible.

Anonymous Coward says:

I Love You Edward Snowden

Truly I love Edward Snowden. Your foresight and the competence of the journalists you released the documents to are truly the gift that keeps on giving. The best part is that the slow leak approach eliminated the usual response:lying. Although I have little hope for the ability of our “representatives” to understand the dangers of devolving into a fascist police surveillance state it gives me some hope that out of 300 million people, one was willing to make a huge sacrifice for the greater good. Thanks again. You are a hero.

Anonymous Coward says:

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

Isn’t that the essence of all these spying programs though? That lives are on the line and time is of the essence, so due process and warrants dangerously slow everything down.
This statement could easily be rendered meaningless with even the Junior version of the NSA Dictionary.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "voluntarily provide information to any investigating authorities"

I had a different take on this denial. The NSA is not an investigating agency, and collections do not happen until someone looks at the collected bits, so therefore AT&T was not providing information to an investigating agency in the 2003-2013 time period when they were dumping extensive data to an intelligence agency.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

There is no Internet Backbone

The original program started in 1985 and back then the US portion of the Internet was the NSFnet and it did have one backbone. In 1993 the commercial Internet started and then there were multiple backbones.

Today there are unrelated long-distance fiber-optic Internet connections that link all sorts of cities and data centers. There is no “backbone” and there are no “backbones”. All there are are tier-1 carriers, their links, and their interconnections.

Here, for example, is how AT&T transits IPv4 traffic to other providers. Note how many they are connected to. That means any traffic to or from those other providers are immediately shunted off AT&Ts network at the closest peering points. If you follow those other providers to their providers, peers, and customers, you’ll see that the Internet of today –unlike 1985 or 1993 or 2002– is very much just a spiderweb of interconnected networks.


Disclosure: I’ve been responsible for providing Internet service since 1992 (yes, before the commercial Internet).


TDR says:

I wonder what would happen if flyers were put up on every AT&T store across the country telling customers about what they’re getting into with them and how AT&T is the NSA’s snuggle buddy and willingly helps them spy on their customers? At the least, it may make AT&T squirm as it tries to explain itself, and any attempts they make to silence the story would simply Streisand it into the stratosphere and let even more people know what’s going on. Just a thought.

Personanongrata says:

Uncle Sam's Hip Pocket

Imagine all the plum cost-plus, no-bid contracts that have fallen into AT&T’s lap do to it’s willingness to act as an enabler/abettor of unconstitutional/criminal acts on behalf of the US government.

How many other corporations collaborate with the US government?

How many corporations are willing collaborators and how many are coerced into complying?

Refusal of NSA surveillance requests

In May 2006, USA Today reported that millions of telephone calling records had been handed over to the United States National Security Agency by AT&T Corp., Verizon, and BellSouth since September 11, 2001. This data has been used to create a database of all international and domestic calls. Qwest was allegedly the lone holdout, despite threats from the NSA that their refusal to cooperate may jeopardize future government contracts,[10] a decision which has earned them praise from those who oppose the NSA program.[11]

In the case of ACLU v. NSA, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor on August 17, 2006 ruled that the government’s domestic eavesdropping program is unconstitutional and ordered it ended immediately.[12] The Bush Administration filed an appeal in the case, and Judge Taylor’s decision was overturned by the appeals court.

Former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio, alleged in appeal documents that the NSA requested that Qwest participate in its wiretapping program more than six months before September 11, 2001. Nacchio recalls the meeting as occurring on February 27, 2001. Nacchio further claims that the NSA cancelled a lucrative contract with Qwest as a result of Qwest’s refusal to participate in the wiretapping program.[13] Nacchio surrendered April 14, 2009 to a federal prison camp in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania to begin serving a six-year sentence for the insider trading conviction. The United States Supreme Court denied bail pending appeal the same day.[14][15]

Gary Mont (profile) says:

Re: Uncle Sam's Hip Pocket

Actually, methinks ye may have it backwards.

The American Corporations are not really “collaborating” with the USG.

The USG is collaborating with the American Corporations.

After all, the USG is nothing more than a Club Med for CEOs of Industry and Commerce, where they can get together secretly, away from the office, and make laws that provide more and more freedom to profit at everyone else’s expense.

The USG “IS” Corporate America. Why wouldn’t they collaborate to make their current and future members richer? 🙂

Why would they ever do anything that might help the public prosper at the expense of Industry and Commerce??

Justin Bregoff (profile) says:

The communications carriers dump the data, calls, all of the data, and all of the calls, etc. and the government indemnifies them or exempts them from liability. If you try to sue the communications carrier for disclosing your calls, data, the government steps in as the substitute defendant and the government is immune from lawsuits. If the carriers refuse to disclose your data then they are liable, per the Patriot Act and subsequent laws.

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