According to documents provided to the New York Times and ProPublica by Edward Snowden, AT&T and the NSA have maintained for decades a “highly collaborative” relationship that has facilitated the government agency’s ability to spy on enormous quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States.
One document, the Times reports, applauds AT&T’s “extreme willingness to help.” Another reminds National Security Agency officials to be nice to AT&T employees when visiting their facilities: “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.”
In September 2003, AT&T was the first of the NSA’s corporate partners to enable a new metadata collection capability that was described as essentially a “‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, it was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system.”
From the Times:
AT&T’s cooperation has involved a broad range of classified activities, according to the documents, which date from 2003 to 2013. AT&T has given the N.S.A. access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.
The N.S.A.’s top-secret budget in 2013 for the AT&T partnership was more than twice that of the next-largest such program, according to the documents. The company installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs on American soil, far more than its similarly sized competitor, Verizon. And its engineers were the first to try out new surveillance technologies invented by the eavesdropping agency.
In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the N.S.A. after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” according to an internal agency newsletter. This revelation is striking because after Mr. Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.
It is not clear whether these programs are still operational today, the Times reports. One NSA document from 2013 states that AT&T’s “corporate relationships provide unique accesses to other telecoms and ISPs.”