Over the years, a company that is synonymous with the telephone has been a key player in helping the National Security Agency pore over electronic and phone records.
AT&T has given the NSA access to billions of emails, a New York Times and ProPublica investigation has found.
The NSA in 2013 had a secret budget for AT&T’s partnership that was more than double that of the next-largest similar program, the newspaper reported, in reliance on NSA documents that were provided by former government contractor Edward Snowden. Although the papers don’t refer to AT&T by name, the Times traced NSA’s partnership with AT&T to a program known as Fairview that began a year after the Bell phone monopoly was divested.
The Times and ProPublica – a non-profit newsroom – reviewed NSA documents that range from 2003 through 2013.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil, AT&T and MCI were instrumental in the Bush Administration’s warrantless spying programs, according to the article, which cited a draft document by the NSA’s inspector general. The Times also referenced an internal NSA newsletter, which disclosed AT&T in 2011 had started “handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the NSA after ‘a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.’”
The article also described an NSA program known as Stormbrew that is tied to Verizon.
The secret surveillance programs cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The Times said the NSA spent $188.9 million on the Fairview program in 2011.
“The scale of the data transferred to the U.S. intelligence agencies makes a mockery of claims from the Obama administration that the spying has been ‘targeted’ at alleged terrorists,” said the Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalization, an independent research and media organization, commenting on the Times’ investigation.
The surveillance programs, first reported on in 2013 by the Washington Post and the Guardian, sparked privacy concerns.
Earlier this summer, President Obama signed into law the USA Freedom Act, a piece of legislation that the Center for Democracy & Technology said would …
… end the bulk collection of records and include reporting obligations, including a requirement that the government declassify significant opinions issued by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The Times said it couldn’t determine if the secret programs operate in the same way today.
Dallas-based AT&T and New York-based Verizon declined to comment on the Times’ findings.
Both companies regularly disclose data related to law enforcement demands for customer information, including so-called national security letters and court orders that have been issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The FBI can only request limited information in a national security letter, and such data as content and location information is not disclosed, according to Verizon’s recent transparency report.
AT&T received between 500 and 999 national security letters between January 2015 and June 2015.
“The privacy of AT&T’s customers around the world is of paramount importance to us,” AT&T said in its most recent transparency report. “AT&T joined other technology companies and public interest groups in advocating for limits on the government’s ability to obtain customer communications stored abroad.”