The NSA got access to the bulk of America’s phone calls and international traffic through “back doors” into communication switching systems, thanks to the cooperation of top officials of the major telecommunications companies, including Verizon, AT&T, MCI, Bell South and Sprint. Quest reportedly refused to cooperate with the NSA unless it got a warrant. The phone companies enabled the NSA to amass a data base of billions of records from over 200 million customers (USA Today, May 16, 2006).
Shortly after The New York Times in December 2005 broke the news about warrantless surveillance by the NSA, Mark Klein, a former technician at AT&T, revealed that the phone company had provided the NSA with a room and wholesale access to the data of its customers at the San Francisco Internet and telephone hub, among other places. In 2003, AT&T installed equipment that was able to select messages by keywords and email addresses of country of origin, and use data mining techniques for further analysis.
Verizon and AT&T later acknowledged receiving ”compensation for reasonable costs” when handing over customer records. Verizon general counsel Randal Mitch told Congress that the phone company routinely complies with the government’s demands without court orders, and does not try to determine the requests’ legality as this would “slow efforts to save lives in criminal investigations” (Washington Post, October 16, 2007).
AT&T and Verizon both have privacy policies that prohibit the disclosure of private call information to outside parties without legal process. Lawsuits brought on behalf of customers and challenging the NSA warrantless surveillance have had limited success. Evidence that has come to light in discovery suggest that the NSA asked Quest for information well before 9/11 and AT&T began preparing facilities for the NSA to use some seven months before the September 11 attacks.
In July 2008, Congress gave the telecoms immunity for their participation in warrantless wiretapping when it passed the FISA Amendments Act.
Image Credit (bottom left): EFF