AT&T receives over $10 million each year from the CIA to provide phone records during counterterrorism investigations, reports The New York Times. AT&T's cooperation in these investigations is said to be voluntary, and not mandated by any type of order. Under the deal, the CIA is reportedly able to supply terrorism suspects' phone numbers to AT&T, which then queries its database for call records.
Americans' international calls are included
Those records include the metadata — such as the length and date — of foreign calls made over AT&T's equipment, reports the Times. But the records can also include information on Americans' international calls, since they would be speaking with a party overseas. In such cases, the CIA requests that the American party's phone number is masked, apparently satisfying legal restrictions that would otherwise bar the agency from collecting data on US citizens.
The CIA's deal with AT&T is apparently separate from the NSA's data-collection efforts, and likely duplicates some of its programs, reports the Times. Neither the CIA nor AT&T would confirm the program, but an anonymous intelligence official suggested that it would make sense for the agency to have such a program in place. "That need to act without delay is often best met when CIA has developed its own capabilities to lawfully acquire necessary foreign intelligence information," the official tells the Times. The official's explanation mirrors reasoning given for the NSA's own data collection — that it's important for the agency to respond quickly, rather than having to wait on a third party or legal orders.
This wouldn't be the first time that AT&T has assisted in government data collection. After 9/11, AT&T assisted the NSA with spying on Americans' phone use — something that it and other telecoms later received retroactive immunity for. According to the Times, the timeline of this new deal between AT&T and the CIA is somewhat unclear: it seems to have begun sometime before 2010, was halted at some point, and eventually started back up again. Both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have reportedly been briefed on the program.
The CIA may have fewer restrictions than the NSA
The CIA may also have fewer constraints than the NSA on what it does with this type of call data. According to the Times, the CIA isn't held to the same court-imposed restrictions that the NSA is, allowing it to operate with more freedom. This has apparently led to the CIA making far more requests to AT&T for data than the NSA has. In the event that American data is of interest to the CIA, the agency can also reportedly have the data unmasked by requesting that the FBI issue an administrative subpoena and have AT&T remove the initial censoring.
With this program being a voluntary one, it raises new issues in the ongoing debate around the privacy of phone calls. The data is no longer being collected without permission, but is actually able to be given away in part because such data is not considered private since it's being put in the hands of a third party in the first place. AT&T did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but it tells the Times that it protects customers' privacy by complying with local laws, and that it does not comment on matters of national security.
Update: In a statement, AT&T tells us that it always ensures that its responses are "completely lawful and proper." Though it won't comment on matters of national security, AT&T does note that, "Like all telecom providers, we routinely charge governments for producing the information provided." The company's full statement is below.
In all cases, whenever any governmental entity anywhere seeks information from us, we ensure that the request and our response are completely lawful and proper. We ensure that we maintain customer information in compliance with the laws of the United States and other countries where information may be maintained. Like all telecom providers, we routinely charge governments for producing the information provided. We do not comment on questions concerning national security.