Telecommunications powerhouse AT&T has provided extensive assistance to the U.S. National Security Agency as the spy agency conducts surveillance on huge volumes of Internet traffic passing through the United States, according to newly disclosed NSA documents.
The New York Times reported that the company gave technical assistance to the NSA in carrying out a secret court order allowing wiretapping of all Internet communications at the headquarters of the United Nations, an AT&T customer.
The documents date from 2003 to 2013 and were provided by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
While it has been long known that American telecommunications companies worked closely with the spy agency, the newspaper reported, the documents show that the government’s relationship with AT&T has been considered unique and especially productive. One document described it as “highly collaborative,” while another lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help,” the newspaper reported.
The documents describe how the NSA’s working relationship with AT&T has been particularly important, enabling the agency to conduct surveillance, under various legal rules, of international and foreign-to-foreign Internet communications that passed through network hubs in the United States.
AT&T installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its U.S. Internet hubs, far more than competitor Verizon Communications Inc, the Times reported. AT&T engineers also were the first to use new surveillance technologies invented by the NSA.
"This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship," according to one NSA document describing the link between the agency and the company.
AT&T’s "corporate relationships provide unique accesses to other telecoms and I.S.P.s," or Internet service providers, according to another NSA document.
AT&T started in 2011 to provide the NSA more than 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records daily after "a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11," referring to the September. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the Times reported.
AT&T’s providing of foreign-to-foreign Internet traffic has been especially important to the NSA because large amounts of the world’s Internet communications pass across U.S. cables, the Times reported. The company gave access to contents of transiting email traffic years before Verizon started in March 2013, the Times reported.
Asked to comment on the Times report, AT&T spokesman Brad Burns said: "We do not voluntarily provide information to any investigating authorities other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence. For example, in a kidnapping situation we could provide help tracking down called numbers to assist law enforcement."
Burns said AT&T would have nothing further to say on the report.
Reuters, Associated Press