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.