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

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Government // Mobile & Wireless
12:05 PM

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
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

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

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
<<   <   Page 3 / 3
User Rank: Ninja
8/17/2015 | 6:00:52 PM
Re: What I worry about
If communication companies are help the NSA counter terrorist threats and treason, such as the doings of Assange and Snowden - Right On!

Wow! I just can't believe what I'm reading. I couldn't disagree with you more on this.

For many, the "doings" of Assange and Snowden are necessary steps to undermine the power of the empire. Some will call this justice, freedom and them, heroes. Not terrorists or traitors.
User Rank: Ninja
8/17/2015 | 2:37:57 PM
What I worry about
If communication companies are help the NSA counter terrorist threats and treason, such as the doings of Assange and Snowden - Right On! What I worry about is if they are providing ordinary law enforcement with extraconstitutional help in solving ordinary crimes.
User Rank: Strategist
8/17/2015 | 1:28:31 PM
Subject of Your Post
While the actions of AT&T is alarming from a privacy perspective, the given information known with the actions of the NSA lead many to beleive that all these different technologies have already been compromised by the orginization in one way, form, or another.


The rise and 'fall' of the developement of Truecrypt.
User Rank: Ninja
8/17/2015 | 1:07:19 PM
AT&T has long history of this
If you've ever read the book Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley (a history of phone phreaks, the first hackers), this AT&T revelation is not a surprise. AT&T was so irritated by this community stealing free long distance they built their own Big Brother system to capture all phone traffic back in the 60s-70s. They used internally to work with FBI to track the phreaks down, especially the ones selling the black boxes to execute the hack. Once the FBI learned of it's existence, they buddied up with AT&T to go after bookies. Bookies, because of needing frequent long distance calling, were huge customers of the hack.

The most interesting part of book to me was how close Wozniak and Steve Jobs came to getting busted by FBI. They were making some money building and selling black boxes long before Apple was even a gleam in their eye.
<<   <   Page 3 / 3
10 Cyberattacks on the Rise During the Pandemic
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek,  6/24/2020
IT Trade Shows Go Virtual: Your 2020 List of Events
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  5/29/2020
Study: Cloud Migration Gaining Momentum
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author,  6/22/2020
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Current Issue
Key to Cloud Success: The Right Management
This IT Trend highlights some of the steps IT teams can take to keep their cloud environments running in a safe, efficient manner.
Flash Poll