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?

Eric Zeman, Contributor

August 17, 2015

3 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: Linda Jo Heilman/iStockphoto)</p>

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?)

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.

About the Author(s)

Eric Zeman


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

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