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The Wireless Carrier With At Least 8 'Hidden Spy Hubs' Helping The NSA

AT&T logo During the late 1970s and 1980s, AT&T conducted an iconic “reach out and touch someone” advertising campaign to encourage consumers to call their friends, family, and classmates. Back then, it was old school -- landlines. The campaign ranked #80 on Ad Age's list of the 100 top ad campaigns from the last century.

Now, we learn a little more about how extensive pervasive surveillance activities are at AT&T facilities to help law enforcement reach out and touch persons. Yesterday, the Intercept reported:

"The NSA considers AT&T to be one of its most trusted partners and has lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.” It is a collaboration that dates back decades. Little known, however, is that its scope is not restricted to AT&T’s customers. According to the NSA’s documents, it values AT&T not only because it "has access to information that transits the nation," but also because 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.”

The new report describes in detail the activities at eight AT&T facilities in major cities across the United States. Consumers who use other branded wireless service providers are also affected:

"Because of AT&T’s position as one of the U.S.’s leading telecommunications companies, it has a large network that is frequently used by other providers to transport their customers’ data. Companies that “peer” with AT&T include the American telecommunications giants Sprint, Cogent Communications, and Level 3, as well as foreign companies such as Sweden’s Telia, India’s Tata Communications, Italy’s Telecom Italia, and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom."

It was five years ago this month that the public learned about extensive surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Back then, the Guardian UK newspaper reported about a court order allowing the NSA to spy on U.S. citizens. The revelations continued, and by 2016 we'd learned about NSA code inserted in Android operating system software, the FISA Court and how it undermines the public's trust, the importance of metadata and how much it reveals about you (despite some politicians' claims otherwise), the unintended consequences from broad NSA surveillance, U.S. government spy agencies' goal to break all encryption methods, warrantless searches of U.S. citizens' phone calls and e-mail messages, the NSA's facial image data collection program, the data collection programs included ordinary (e.g., innocent) citizens besides legal targets, and how  most hi-tech and telecommunications companies assisted the government with its spy programs. We knew before that AT&T was probably the best collaborator, and now we know more about why. 

Content vacuumed up during the surveillance includes consumers' phone calls, text messages, e-mail messages, and internet activity. The latest report by the Intercept also described:

"The messages that the NSA had unlawfully collected were swept up using a method of surveillance known as “upstream,” which the agency still deploys for other surveillance programs authorized under both Section 702 of FISA and Executive Order 12333. The upstream method involves tapping into communications as they are passing across internet networks – precisely the kind of electronic eavesdropping that appears to have taken place at the eight locations identified by The Intercept."

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden commented on Twitter:

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Chanson de Roland

Indeed, we learned only a little more from the Intercept’s reporting, supra, as nearly all of the Intercept’s news had been reported before and some of the Intercept’s news is years old. What I recall as being new news is the Intercept disclosing some more of AT&T’s nodes connecting to its and other parts of the Internet backbone. The rest of the Intercept’s reporting is rather old news, having been reported by Sixty Minutes, Edward Snowden, the New York Times, et al.

Though breathlessly reported, nor is the vast majority of what the Intercept reports in any way sinister or illegal. It is to be expected and, indeed, hoped that the U.S. signals intelligence agency, the NSA, and law enforcement, the FBI, monitor communications on the Internet to gather the intelligence to keep the United States and her people safe and to enforce our laws, which they couldn’t effectively do without surveilling the Internet. And the vast majority of the NSA monitoring that the Intercept reports is not only necessary for our security and to advance the nation’s interests; it is legal.

The only thing interesting and concerning that the Intercept reports—and this is very old yet important news—is the intentional and inadvertent illegal surveillance and/or collection of American citizens’ communications on the Internet and other networks. Edward Snowden reported that years ago, and Sixty Minutes reported it years before Snowden. Both Congress, the special federal court, the FISA Court, which oversees secret government surveillance, and the NSA itself have move to correct the either inadvertent or intentionally illegal surveillance of Americans.

What would have been interesting for the Intercept to report is how effective Congress, the courts, and NSA’s efforts have been in preventing any further illegal surveillance, whether technically inadvertent or intentional, has been. On that point, the congressional committees, which oversee the NSA, have disclosed some heavily redacted reports that disclose what has been done to eliminate all intentionally illegal NSA surveillance of the Internet and other communications networks and some barebones information on the effectiveness of those efforts. Those reports further disclose some limited and heavily censored information that shows a marked decline in inadvertent illegal collection of surveillance data from Americans, and that NSA implemented procedures and technology to sequester surveillance information of dubious legality, until it can be vetted to determine whether it is legally collected. The Intercept, if I recall correctly, confines it reporting of this to one oblique comment about NSA having terminated one program of collecting data.

And finally, the Intercept should not have neglected to report that, while many in Congress and elsewhere would have further restrained the NSA’s ability to surveil and collect information from the communications network, President Obama, by executive order, and Congress, through changes to the law, both, after balancing the risks to national security versus impairment of our citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights, determined to permit the NSA to continue its surveillance of the communications networks but with safeguards, the effectiveness of which largely remain a mystery, nor has any federal court, notwithstanding legal challenge, found any further illegality in the NSA’s surveillance, though I recall that none of those cases was decided on rhe merits. Perhaps, the Intercept was conflicted by not wanting to besmirch the reputation of a man, President Obama, who is a liberal icon for many of its readers, versus its desire to color its reporting to create a vast NSA conspiracy of surveillance, which, as far as is now publicly known, may be perfectly legal and which is certainly necessary for the United States’ security.

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