AT&T the NSA’s Most Prized Possession

Michael In the News

Everyone knows that telecommunications companies are helping the NSA spy on Americans. We also know that some of these companies that provide internet and telecommunications put up a fight- but ultimately lost. Yahoo is the most known for attempting to fight PRISM-the program that gave the government warrant to compel large tech companies to continually hand over large bulks of data.

After putting up a long fight in the secret court of FISA and being threatened with a $250,000 fine-a-day for not complying, Yahoo finally lost the fight against PRISM. In the final ruling the secret court judges called Yahoo’s concern ‘overblown.’

However, not all companies were as reluctant to give up their customers data.

Like Winston, all the tech companies have come around to Big Brother

A NSA slide showing a list of tech companies and when they joined the PRISM program

Behold, the Hand of him That Betrayeth Me is With Me on the Table Phone and Internet

Telecommunications and ISP companies working hand in hand with the NSA is nothing new. Facebook and Google, probably more, have set up secret rooms that give the NSA unlimited access to their servers and web traffic. And to show their appreciation the government passed a clause in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that gave the companies immunity from being held accountable to giving this access to the government. This is just one of the many ways that the government tweaked the constitution in its favor.

The immunity sufficiently stopped multiple lawsuits that were in progress and prevented future lawsuits from taking place.

New documents released this week (covering a time span of 2003-2013) show that one company was especially accommodating to the domestic spies we call the NSA: AT&T. NSA documents call the relationship a partnership as opposed to a contractual agreement and even sent reminders to NSA employees to be courteous when visiting AT&T sites.

Just how close was their relationship? Documents belonging to the NSA describe AT&T as “highly collaborative” and having an “extreme willingness to help.” The budget for the partnership was more than twice the amount allowed to the second largest program, $188 million, and AT&T had NSA suerveillance equipment installed in at least 17 of its internet hubs here in the US.

Part of me wants to feel sorry for AT&T, perhaps they were only trying to be patriotic. But then I look to employees of AT&T like Mark Klein who clearly knew that something was amiss.

Given his statement, there is no way that AT&T did not know about the massive collection of their customers’ data.

What’s even more worrisome is that the codename that correlates to the relationship with AT&T, Fairview, dates all the way back to 1985. Suggesting that this “highly collaborative” partnership has been going on for much longer than most people ever suspected. Even whistle blower Mark Klein was taken aback by this.

It’s appalling that people like Richard Ledgett, Deputy Director of the NSA (seen here on Ted Talks defending the NSA), can still keep a straight face while maintaining that the NSA’s programs are legal and ethical. Even when we know that they, as well as GCHQ have no qualms about spying on anyone. GCHQ was recently caught spying on Amnesty International. And it was reported back in 2013 that the NSA spied on the UN. These new documents show that the UN spying was conducted by AT&T.

Due to the nature of AT&T services and the way the internet is entangled, AT&T would transmit other companies data through its own internet hub. Allowing the NSA to capture unsuspecting companies’ data. explains this best, “The packets that make up emails and other messages are sent through the fastest routes possible, jumping on and off each company’s network as needed. That means that any Internet user’s communications, regardless of whetherthey are an AT&T customer, could end up on AT&T’s network — and in the NSA’s hands.”

It is not just the collecting of internet communications that AT&T facilitated. The New York Times also reports, “In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the N.S.A.”

A little less wind in our sails

Other details take a little umph out of the purported win over the NSA earlier this year. Activists were excited when the USA FREEDOM Act passed after the sunset of the USA PATRIOT ACT. Although the provision only really addressed telecommunication metadata it was still reported as a win for privacy. One of the new stipulations was that the metadata collection was taken out of the hands of the NSA and put back in the hands of the telecommunications companies- which is only arguably better.

However, this new document provides evidence that this is simply how it has always been. That the telecommunication companies have been doing the preliminary sifting all along.

According to one of the NSA presentations:

Corporate sites are often controlled by the partner, who filters the communications before sending to N.S.A. This system sometimes leads to delays when the government sends new instructions.

So in a Huck Finn type maneuver the government allowed the people to believe it won by walking back some portions of the USA PATRIOT Act- when in reality we only got what was already happening.

The Irony is Not Lost on Me

The government claims that by discussing these surveillance policies in an open court- or by unsealing files from previous cases- we will jeopardize national security. They say this because they claim that knowing what companies and capabilities the NSA has under its belt terrorists can better avoid those means of communication.

However, the irony is that it looks more and more like there isn’t any avenue that isn’t tapped by the NSA. It seems that the terrorists are in the same boat as the average American when it comes to how likely it is that their information will be swept up in the bulk collection of data.

Given the trickery of the NSA it wouldn’t surprise me if nothing was truly private anymore. If they use the excuse ‘can’t say which companies or abilities we have because it will undermine operations’ simply because it is what we would expect them to say; when in reality every company and method of communication has been severely compromised.

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