AT&T gets paid $10 million/ year by the CIA to give up user data and customers phone logs

Published time: November 07, 2013 16:57                                                                            

AFP Photo/Etienne FranchiAFP Photo/Etienne Franchi

The second-largest telecom country in the United States has been on the Central Intelligence Agency’s payroll to the tune of $10 million a year in exchange for voluntarily handing over troves of phone logs, the New York Times reported Thursday.

Citing federal officials with knowledge of the program, The  Times’ Charlie Savage wrote that telecommunication giant AT&T  has been routinely collaborating in CIA investigations by  surrendering phone records to the agency and even scouring vast  archives of dated logs on their behalf since at least 2010,  adding yet another scandalous chapter in the sordid story of the  telecom’s long-lasting and often elusive relationship with the  government.

The exchange has not been codified into any official program or  covered under a specific law, Savage said, but is rather done  through a voluntary contract in which AT&T is awarded  millions of dollars annually in exchange for searching its  databases for the CIA in instances where the agency provides the  phone number of an overseas terrorism suspect whose contacts are  then called into question.

AT&T will scour these databases to search for information on  foreign targets, Savage wrote, collecting in the process  collateral intelligence about American persons who may have been  in contact with the overseas suspect at any time in the past.

Representatives for both the CIA and AT&T declined to confirm  the existence of the program to the Times, with the intelligence  agency acknowledging that it is forbidden from “acquiring  information concerning the domestic activities of US  persons.” According to Savage, however, AT&T has indeed  handed over information pertaining to American citizens, the  likes of which are supposedly subject to privacy safeguards —   that could then be bypassed by other US agencies.

Most of the call logs provided by AT&T involve  foreign-to-foreign calls, but when the company produces records  of international calls with one end in the United States, it does  not disclose the identity of the Americans and ‘masks’ several  digits of their phone numbers,” Savage said officials told  him.

At that point, he added, the CIA could contact the Federal Bureau  of Investigation and ask for an administrative subpoena  compelling AT&T to provide information about the American  subject.

The bureau handles any domestic investigation, but sometimes  shares with the CIA the information about the American  participant in those calls,” Savage again said his sources  informed him.

Speaking on behalf of the CIA, spokesman Dean Boyd told the Times  that the agency “protects the nation and upholds privacy  rights of Americans by ensuring that its intelligence collection  activities are focused on acquiring foreign intelligence and  counterintelligence in accordance with US laws.”

We value our customers’ privacy and work hard to protect it  by ensuring compliance with the law in all respects. We do not  comment on questions concerning national security,” AT&T  spokesman Mark Siegel added.

Should Savage’s claim hold true, however, the conduct of the  telephone company could fall directly counter to promises made on  its website, particularly one sentence on a page that lists   “Our privacy commitments.”

We will not sell your personal information to anyone, for any  purpose. Period,” AT&T assures its customers.

A caveat says that AT&T will indeed share  personal information, however, to “Comply with court orders,  subpoenas, lawful discovery requests and other legal or  regulatory requirements, and to enforce our legal rights or  defend against legal claims.” Another says information could  be shared with “a responsible governmental entity in emergency  or exigent circumstances or in situations involving immediate  danger of death or serious physical injury.”

According to Savage’s sources, however, no court order is  necessary for the sort of specific collaboration cited in the  Times, and the exchange of millions of dollars annually suggests  that the relationship is one that involves legitimate business  transactions — with one party being the intelligence arm of the  United States.

But as Savage and others were quick to point out, the CIA’s  conduct in this case all too much emulates the behavior of  another major intelligence community player: the National  Security Agency. The NSA has maintained an alliance with AT&T  that has been highly documented for years, raising additional  questions about the immense scope — and cost — of the federal  government’s efforts to infiltrate the telecom industry.

In 2007, former AT&T technician Mark Klein blew the whistle  on a program that involved the NSA tapping all Internet data  traveling into one of the company’s major California data hubs.  Then just this year, intelligence contractor-turned-leaker Edward  Snowden revealed that the NSA was collecting millions of call  records from multiple telecoms on a regular basis while also  working hand-in-hand with certain Internet services to eavesdrop  on online communications. According to one document released by Snowden, the NSA has paid  those companies millions of dollars in order to cover the cost of  maintaining that Internet surveillance program, code-named PRISM.

Elsewhere in their Privacy Policy, AT&T acknowledges, “We  share your Personal Information with companies that perform  services for us” and adds “we cannot guarantee that your  Personal Information will never be disclosed in a manner  inconsistent with this Policy.”


Categories: Intelligence Gathering

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