Technology companies named in the reports have said that their dealings with the NSA have adhered to legal guidelines, and many tech officials have openly called for curbs on U.S. surveillance, declaring that mass spying efforts harm business interests.
AT&T, however, has been especially helpful to the NSA, leaked documents show. "One document described it 'as highly collaborative,' while another lauded the company's 'extreme willingness to help,' " according to the report. AT&T surveillance assistance, via the Fairview program, dates back prior to the 9/11 attacks and the enactment of USA Patriot Act spying provisions, all the way to the mid-1980s after the company emerged as a long-distance powerhouse in the wake of the breakup of the Bell System.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires a court order to target someone in the U.S. But court orders are not required when a foreigner outside the US communicates with an American, and when foreigners are messaging other foreigners, the report notes. AT&T and other telecom companies apparently "sift" Internet data before handing it over to the NSA, according to the report, an arrangement that reportedly helps the government agency to work within legal boundaries.
But documents disclosed by Snowden stress that AT&T is an especially eager NSA partner, and that its "corporate relationships provide unique accesses to other telecoms and I.S.P.s,."
ProPublica and the New York Times were apparently able to link Fairview to AT&T through a careful examination of documents disclosed by Snowden, matching up terminology and events with pubic records. "A Fairview fiber-optic cable, damaged in the 2011 earthquake in Japan, was repaired on the same date as a Japanese-American cable operated by AT&T. Fairview documents use technical jargon specific to AT&T," the report said.
Over the past two years, information leaked by Snowden has led to ongoing debate in the U.S. about the scope of government spying. In June for example, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to curb the NSA's bulk collection of domestic telephone records.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.