New documents released by Edward Snowden reveal AT&T was far more than just a willing participant in the National Security Agency's efforts to snoop on the world's internet usage. NSA documents say that the agency had a "highly collaborative" relationship with AT&T, and the company is described as having an "extreme willingness to help."
The new details come from a joint report from The New York Times and ProPublica. The key takeaway is that it appears AT&T was happy to help the NSA. It's already been documented that the telecom giant, like other service providers, did not try to protect its customers' privacy or make efforts to restrict the NSA's reach. But it now seems clear that AT&T went out of its way to accommodate the NSA.
The NSA itself notes that "this is a partnership, not a contractual relationship."
According to the joint report, AT&T installed surveillance equipment — at the NSA's request — in no fewer than 17 internet hubs across the US. To put that in perspective, it's said that Verizon, the other major telecom in the US, installed "far fewer" systems at its hubs. The NSA's payments to AT&T for its cooperation — which were previously revealed to be $10 million in 2013 — are reportedly more than double what the agency paid for the second largest program. It's likely Verizon was the recipient of the second-largest payments.
In addition, the documents reveal that AT&T provided the NSA with emails sent between foreigners years before Verizon started the practice. That data often goes through cables owned by one of the US telecoms, since much of the world's internet traffic enters the US on its way to a foreign destination — even if the sender and recipient live outside the country. It was also AT&T who helped the NSA intercept all internet communications from the United Nations.
Notably, the documents don't specifically mention AT&T by name. The NSA uses codenames instead, but the Times and ProPublica report that the details provided clearly line up with AT&T. Officials also confirmed that the documents referred to the company.
AT&T was consistently more cooperative than Verizon
AT&T's relationship is said to date back to 1985, and internal NSA documents are careful to tell officials to be kind when they're dealing with the company. "This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship," the documents remind NSA agents. The NSA's actions have always existed in a bit of a legal gray area, so cooperation from major telecoms and other companies like Google and Facebook has been key to the agency's programs.
Even after Snowden's shocking revelations, AT&T and Verizon have been reluctant to put up a fight against the NSA. That's due, in part, because the telecoms have major ties with the government. They rely on cooperation with government regulators to keep their businesses running smoothly. It's simply in the telecom's best interest to maintain a good relationship with the government — even if it means providing the NSA with massive quantities of its users' data.
AT&T hasn't offered any comment directly on the report. The company did provide a statement to The Verge noting, "We do not provide information to any investigating authorities without a court order or other mandatory process other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence." It is unclear if AT&T includes bulk data surveillance in its definition of "information," or whether the NSA is considered among "investigating authorities." A spokesperson added to the Times: "We don’t comment on matters of national security."
Update, August 16th, 12:38PM ET: Added statement from AT&T.