The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) relied heavily on cooperation from telecom operator AT&T for its spying on internet traffic passing through the U.S., according to a report by the New York Times and the non-profit investigative journalism organization ProPublica. NSA documents obtained from the whistleblower Edward Snowden show that the relationship with AT&T has been considered unique and especially productive. One document described it as “highly collaborative,” while another lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.” AT&T’s cooperation involved a broad range of classified activities, according to the documents, which date from 2003 to 2013. AT&T gave the NSA access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they 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 headquarters of the United Nations, which is a customer of AT&T. The company installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its internet hubs on American soil, far more than competitor Verizon. In addition, its engineers were the first to try out new surveillance technologies invented by the eavesdropping agency. The NSA, AT&T and Verizon declined to discuss the findings from the files.
This latest revelation from the Snowden trove puts AT&T in a potentially difficult position as far as consumer relations are concerned. While the NSA documents do not actually mention AT&T by name—instead using a code name for the partnership program in question—the New York Times article marshals “a constellation of evidence that points to AT&T” as the entity with which the security agency partnered. As we have written, recent incidents indicate that the general public is unhappy about what it perceives as invasions of privacy on the part of telecom service providers. For AT&T to have cooperated with the NSA in sharing phone, email and internet traffic on a such a large scale, to the extent that it stood out from all other telecom operators in the country, is very likely to cause serious backlash from existing customers and to have a negative effect on AT&T’s efforts to add subscribers in the future. According to the report, Verizon also partnered with the NSA in this domestic information-gathering project, although to a much more limited extent.
When contacted by the Times, an AT&T spokesman, Brad Burns, said, “We do not voluntarily provide information to any investigating authorities other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence.” In light of the seriousness of the allegations, we believe that AT&T is going to need to come up with a more credible and detailed response if it wants to stave off the likely public-relations consequences of the report. And we also believe that this news story is a cautionary tale for operators in all the democracies. Whatever the benefits of participating in surveillance programs may be—in terms of garnering or retaining government favor—the risks in terms of public image may very well outweigh them.