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Telecom giant AT&T was a key partner in enabling the US National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on internet traffic, according to documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Although it is known several US telcos worked closely with the NSA, the relationship with AT&T was considered unique and especially productive, according to reports by the New York Times and ProPublica, citing newly released NSA documents obtained from Snowden dating from 2003 to 2013.
According to the articles, the documents do not name AT&T directly, but use code names the New York Times and ProPublica believe refer to the company. The articles also said it is unclear if AT&T still has the same kind of relationship with the NSA.
The documents reportedly show AT&T’s partnership with the NSA was closer and more extensive than other US telcos and tech firms, with AT&T giving the spy agency access to information about emails sent on its networks and enabling the NSA to monitor communications at the United Nations.
According to the reports, AT&T enabled NSA access to “billions of emails” through several methods covered under different legal rules.
The documents show that AT&T installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its internet hubs in the US and its engineers were the first to try out surveillance technologies developed by the NSA.
In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic mobile phone calling records a day to the NSA after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11”, according to an internal agency newsletter.
This revelation is striking, the New York Times said because – after Snowden disclosed the collection the records of US citizens’ phone calls – intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.
In response to the latest NSA revelations, AT&T said in a statement to CNN Money that it only provides information to investigative agencies through a court order or “other mandatory process”, unless a person’s life is in danger and “time is of the essence”.
The NSA’s partnership with AT&T was reportedly the agency’s most expensive, costing more than double the second most expensive project in 2013.
According to the articles, one document tells NSA officials to treat AT&T with special care. “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship,” the document reads. Another document describes AT&T as “highly collaborative”, while another talks of the company’s “extreme willingness to help”.
In July 2015, an independent review called for a fresh start in the law for interception of communications in the UK, saying a new, democratic licence to operate is needed.
“Despite the disclosures made by Edward Snowden, we have seen no evidence that the British government knowingly acts illegally in intercepting private communications, or that the ability to collect data in bulk is used by the government to provide it with a perpetual window into the private lives of British citizens,” the report states.
However, the report’s authors said they have seen evidence that the present legal framework authorising the interception of communications is unclear, has not kept pace with developments in communications technology and does not serve either the government or members of the public satisfactorily.
Regarding these findings, the report said a new, comprehensive and clearer legal framework is required to provide a fresh start on a basis of mutual trust in the key principles the review sets out.
Read more about surveillance
- The government, TechUK and Big Brother Watch welcome the Anderson report on surveillance legislation – but the civil liberties group calls for wider debate.
- A European parliamentary conference has called on member states to improve the evaluation and oversight practices of their intelligence services.
- Security expert Bruce Schneier says his book, Data and Goliath, lays out a compelling case against government mass surveillance.