Why AT&T's 'Willingness' To Help NSA Is Alarming - InformationWeek

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8/17/2015
12:05 PM
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Why AT&T's 'Willingness' To Help NSA Is Alarming

Snowden documents show AT&T was all too happy to aid the NSA spy on Americans. Are we really that surprised?

14 Security Fails That Cost Executives Their Jobs
14 Security Fails That Cost Executives Their Jobs
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The NSA would have had a much more difficult time spying on Americans were it not for the comfortable, chummy partnership the government forged with AT&T, say new documents released by Edward Snowden.

AT&T worked closely with the government and ensured the agency had access to emails and call records for a period spanning decades.

Snowden's bombshell revelations exploded two years ago. The shock and awe campaign is over. Since then, a trickle of information continues to flow like lava -- slowly, but still searingly hot -- with new and unsettling revelations. The latest comes from the New York Times, which was privy to more documents shared by Snowden.

This time, Snowden detailed the nature of the relationship between the NSA and one of its top partners: AT&T.

In an incredible bit of irony, the NSA's largest domestic spying program, in action since 1985, is called Fairview. (In hindsight, it doesn't seem all that "fair" to US citizens, does it?)

(Image: Linda Jo Heilman/iStockphoto)

(Image: Linda Jo Heilman/iStockphoto)

The documents suggest AT&T provided the NSA with access to a variety of information, such as billions of emails, as they transited its wired Internet hubs in the United States. AT&T helped the NSA spy on the United Nations, an AT&T customer, thanks to technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order.

A separate program, called Stormbrew, was aided by Verizon and MCI, but the NSA spent twice as much money on Fairview.

Things took a turn after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The documents say AT&T started sending email and phone call data to the NSA "within days" after the Bush Administration began warrantless surveillance in October 2001. Later, in September 2003, AT&T was first to initiate a new data-gathering program that gave the NSA, in effect, a "live" presence on the World Wide Web. By 2011, AT&T was handing over 1.1 billion domestic phone call records on a daily basis. AT&T also made sure the NSA had access to the network traffic of its foreign business partners, which aren't protected by the same privacy laws as US citizens.

That AT&T helped the NSA isn't a surprise.

This is something we've already had time to digest. And, to be fair, AT&T wasn't alone. Other telecommunications providers surely played a role in collecting data in bulk for the government's spy agencies.

[Do you think the US should hold the lead on Internet governance? See ICANN Proposal: Internet With Less US Oversight.]

What's particularly galling here is the nature of the relationship between AT&T and the NSA, as per the documents. One document suggests the relationship was "highly collaborative." Another praised AT&T's "extreme willingness to help." Yet another reminded NSA employees that they should be nice to AT&T because, "this is a partnership, not a contractual relationship."

The NSA shows no lack of creativity in finding ways to gather information. Earlier this year, we learned that five governments colluded to see about infecting smartphones with spyware.

Snowden's latest leak certainly stings, but this particular bite is one with which we've become all too familiar.

Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies. View Full Bio

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moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
8/19/2015 | 7:59:20 AM
Re: What I worry about
Seeking asylum in Russia was not Snowden's choice, but a necessity because in any other place the US would have hunted him down to bring him back to the US for what will obviously be an unfair trial.

And you are wrong, Snowden single handedly did more for national security than any of the goons at the NSA, CIA, FBI, White House, military, Congress or whatever dysfunctional club we have. The administration showed its ineptitude with Snowden. Instead of hunting him down like a rabid dog they should have thrown him a big thank you party, give him some medals, give him tenure, buy him a nice house, and follow his advice. That would all have been better and less embarrassing than having the collected information leak out to the world. But that would have required foresight and intelligence, something totally lacking in the fire first, ask no questions second crowd in DC.

Snowden isn't against spying or against national security, what he could no longer do is sit idly by and watch masses of innocent people getting their personal information abused for no reason. Ever saw the movie "The life of others"? It is about the doings of the East German Staatssicherheit who spied on pretty much everyone in East German for ridiculous or no reasons at all runing the lives of many people. This is exactly the same that the NSA is doing and all the control and oversight that Congress should have is no longer there because the NSA and other agencies became a self-serving, self-centered, uncontrolled bunch that only exists to secure its own existance even if none of their work generates any tangible results. All that effort, time, and yes, money spent would have been much better used for improving relationships and economic well-being in those countries that have terrorist camps. Happy people with a job, enough to eat, housing, and a future do not build bombs and they will easily take care of those few religious nutballs that despite all that have stupid ideas.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
8/19/2015 | 7:45:29 AM
Re: What I worry about
Sad, but true, the intentional racial bias of Israeli security is effective. They openly admit that they target specific groups, but they do that already on the perimeter of airports, not only in a busy line at the security check point in a terminal filled with hundreds of people.

Focusing on that issue alone is unfair. The problem is that an ethnic group was driven off their land, is isolated in a place that is not sufficient to sustain their lives, and under constant fear. Under those circumstances it is not surprising that a portion of these people considers armed aggression and terror attacks as the only suitable means, although even they should know that it is futile.

This does not apply only to Israel, but to the US and many European countries. If you continue to choke off others for your own benefit they will eventually come to get what is rightfully theirs. In Europe they currently do that in peaceful means by risking their own lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The more pushback there is and the longer the problems in their home countries remain unresolved the more likely it will be that they do not use a rusty fishing boat, but an armed cruiser to make the passage.

As far as TSA goes, what do we expect from people who get paid often minimum wage and who are put up as the lightning rods for stressed travelers who demand top notch service all around after being nickled and dimed for every bag and a pack of peanuts.

The TSA even operates under ridiculously stupid rules. There was ONE guy who had explosives in his shoe, barely enough to amputate his own foot. And what happens? Millions of air travelers every day have to take their shoes off at security checkpoints. What does that accomplish other than increased anxiousness and travel rage which only adds noise to the indicators screeners should look for?

So here we have plenty of people who get paid next to nothing and have their work made needlessly difficult by dumb rules. Sure! That will work out great!
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
8/19/2015 | 7:31:04 AM
What stings even more is...
...that Congress does absolutely not a single thing to effectively reign this in. Legislation will not help since the NSA ignores that anyway. What is needed is putting an end to the secret courts, demand warrants for every operation, and to help that process along drastically cut funding for the NSA and the dozen other three letter agencies who spy on US residents, entire administrations of friendly nations, and other obviously low/no risk individuals and organizations. Cutting funding will force these agencies to end their uncontrolled spying and focus on their main objectives and continue only those programs that actually generate any results.

Out of the gazillion AT&T records, how many solid leads did the NSA get to prevent a terorist attack? I don't know if the Snowden papers reveal that, but I guess the number is 0.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
8/18/2015 | 2:22:22 PM
Re: What I worry about
So how shall we proceed?  Harrass Arab and Muslim Americans mercelessly until they leave the country even though the vast majority of them appear to have no sympathy with terrorist organizations such as AQ or ISIS?  Or do you have a better idea?
DanK363
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DanK363,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/18/2015 | 11:43:19 AM
Re: What I worry about
The issue with the TSA is that it is all based on a PC version of the world, so you get them checking baby's diapers and old ladies in wheelchairs while avoiding any hint of profiling. With a different attitude toward security Israel has been successful in fending off terrorists - when was the last time you heard about an El Al flight being hijacked? When you add in the stunning lack of competence of the screeners, it is not surprising that over 90% of test bombs made it through the checkpoints in security tests at airports.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
8/18/2015 | 11:01:58 AM
Re: What I worry about
@Gary, one man's terrorist and treason is another man's patriot. Keep in mind that the British considered Americans terrorists and George Washington guilty of treason. I don't think Snowden had any other motivation in mind than trying to help. Whether you and I agree that helped or hurt is a whole different matter.

I happened to watch The Siege again on TV last night. There are just so many facets of this battle against these suicide terrorists. And is the NSA system really helping? Now you have lone wolves just walking into public places and shooting people. This idea we can secure ourselves back into 1950 is a joke. The world has fundamentally changed and not even a complete police state will make us any safer.

I'll just be happy if we can ever stop people from hacking our IRS records. The incompetence in our IT world is just staggering now.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
8/18/2015 | 10:44:32 AM
Re: AT&T has long history of this
@tjgkg It was the way they went about it. Their system not only recorded the Caller/Callee numbers of every call in America but also the first couple of minutes of the actual conversation. Think that didn't help FBI bring down bookies?

And keep in mind they broke up the Bells for a reason, they were ripping everybody off back then. I agree with your basic premise it was theft but their approach to security on that old analog system was obscurity. These boxes were just sending tones into the system which got these phreaks into the backbone of the system. It really is fascinating to read how these people discovered and developed the hack. One of the first was actually a blind guy.
tjgkg
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tjgkg,
User Rank: Ninja
8/17/2015 | 9:05:30 PM
Re: What I worry about
I can't believe anyone would not want to have some sort of security in place to prevent another 9-11. It has nothing to do with "empire" and everything to do with security of a country's citizens. We are not talking about the Gestapo or KGB here. It's annoying like the TSA but i would rather have passengers screened before a plane flight than getting blown up at 35000 feet.
tjgkg
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tjgkg,
User Rank: Ninja
8/17/2015 | 8:09:25 PM
Re: What I worry about
I agree. Snowden has caused more harm to national security with his release of all this information. It is ironic that he is seeking asylum in an autocratic country with a history of abuses that he is supposedly against.
tjgkg
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tjgkg,
User Rank: Ninja
8/17/2015 | 8:05:25 PM
Re: AT&T has long history of this
I'm not sure I see anything wrong with a company trying to prevent theft of its service. It got even worse when the 1960's counterculture decided it was ok to steal services. In fact i think Abbey Hoffman wrote about this box in his book Steal This Book.
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