The NSA uses AT&T facilities in at least eight cities to warrantlessly monitor and collect billions of emails, phone calls, and online chats passing across the United States.
According to a report published by The Intercept based on documents it obtained, the NSA has direct access to network hubs that run through buildings known as “backbone” and “peering” facilities in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
“It’s eye-opening and ominous the extent to which this is happening right here on American soil,” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice told The Intercept. “It puts a face on surveillance that we could never think of before in terms of actual buildings and actual facilities in our own cities, in our own backyards.”
The NSA calls AT&T one of its most trusted partners and praised the telecom giant’s “extreme willingness to help,” according to documents obtained by The Intercept. The spy agency values AT&T not only because it “has access to information that transits the nation,” but also because, as The Intercept put it, “it maintains unique relationships with other phone and internet providers. The NSA exploits these relationships for surveillance purposes, commandeering AT&T’s massive infrastructure and using it as a platform to covertly tap into communications processed by other companies.”
If a company’s network in a particular area becomes overloaded with data traffic, another company with lighter loads will often sell or exchange bandwidth. The exchange of traffic is called peering. As a result, it’s not only AT&T data flowing through these facilities. Emails, internet traffic and phone calls from virtually every provider can flow through these buildings. Because AT&T boasts a large network, the NSA has access to vast amounts of information.
“The data exchange between AT&T and other networks initially takes place outside AT&T’s control, sources said, at third-party data centers that are owned and operated by companies such as California’s Equinix. But the data is then routed – in whole or in part – through the eight AT&T buildings, where the NSA taps into it. By monitoring what it calls the ‘peering circuits’ at the eight sites, the spy agency can collect ‘not only AT&T’s data, they get all the data that’s interchanged between AT&T’s network and other companies,’ according to Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician who worked with the company for 22 years. It is an efficient point to conduct internet surveillance, Klein said, ‘because the peering links, by the nature of the connections, are liable to carry everybody’s traffic at one point or another during the day, or the week, or the year.'”
The NSA would “neither confirm nor deny its role in alleged classified intelligence activities,” and a spokesperson refused to answer questions about the AT&T facilities. But he did offer the usual government disclaimer asserting everything it does is “legal.” The spokesperson said the agency “conducts its foreign signals intelligence mission under the legal authorities established by Congress and is bound by both policy and law to protect U.S. persons’ privacy and civil liberties.”
But the fact of the matter is we know from reams of documents released by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers that the NSA routinely accesses and stores American’s emails, phone calls and other electronic communications without a warrant. The Constitution does not authorize the federal government to access any person’s personal information without a warrant based on probable cause. But as The Intercept explains, the “law,” as interpreted by various federal agencies and often affirmed by federal judges, actually authorizes this kind of unconstitutional surveillance.
“Under a Ronald Reagan-era presidential directive – Executive Order 12333 – the NSA has what it calls ‘transit authority,’ which it says enables it to eavesdrop on ‘communications which originate and terminate in foreign countries, but traverse U.S. territory.’ That could include, for example, an email sent by a person in France to a person in Mexico, which on its way to its destination was routed through a server in California. According to the NSA’s documents, it was using AT&T’s networks as of March 2013 to gather some 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails every day, 1.8 billion per month.”
WHAT CAN WE DO?
In 1975, Sen. Frank Church warned: “If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.” That was before everybody was on the internet. Before everybody had cell phones. Before the widespread use of email. If the government had the capacity to impose “total tyranny” in 1975, what could it do today?
And yet more than 40 years later, Congress has done nothing to rein in the surveillance state. In fact, it’s made agencies like the NSA more powerful through various laws including the FISA Amendments and the Patriot Act.
But some state and local governments have pushed back against Big Brother. Earlier this month, a law went into effect in Michigan that prohibits the state and its political subdivisions from assisting, participating with, or providing “material support or resources, to a federal agency to enable it to collect, or to facilitate in the collection or use of a person’s electronic data” with only a few exceptions. This is an important step that will ensure state agencies do not assist with warrantless surveillance.
But what can we do about private companies like AT&T that willfully cooperate with unconstitutional and illegal data collection?
In the first place, we can vote with our dollars. While all of the telecoms likely cooperate with the federal government to some degree, AT&T is the company the NSA called one of its most trusted partners. If they want to do get into bed with federal spies, we don’t have to do business with them.
Secondly, state and local governments can refuse to do business with any company that willfully cooperates with the NSA and other federal agencies engaging in unconstitutional, warrantless surveillance.
The CHOICE Act throws the ball into a company’s court, forcing it to choose: do business with the NSA and support its rights violating operation, or refuse to provide such support and do business with the state.
Designed to work along with legislation like the Fourth Amendment Protection Act passed in Michigan, the CHOICE Act prohibits any company voluntarily providing direct support to the NSA, or any other federal agency engaged in illegal spying, from entering into contracts with the state.