By law, telecom and Internet companies are often compelled to give up user data when subpoenaed or court ordered. But a new report suggests AT&T voluntarily provides the CIA with call data and is paid more than $10 million a year in exchange for its services.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo is displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
According to the New York Times, the information is used in overseas counterterrorism efforts. The CIA gives AT&T phone numbers of suspected terrorists. The phone company searches its database and provides call records that could help identify others involved in a case.
A report in September revealed AT&T maintained call records -- information that included who called whom, call time, duration and location -- on "every call that passes through an AT&T switch" with records going back 26 years.
Officials familiar with the relationship between the CIA and AT&T, who spoke with the Times on the condition of anonymity due to the activity's classified status, stressed measures taken to ensure the privacy of Americans by law (emphasis added):
Most of the call logs provided by AT&T involve foreign-to-foreign calls, but when the company produces records of international calls with one end in the United States, it does not disclose the identity of the Americans and “masks” several digits of their phone numbers, the officials said.
Still, the agency can refer such masked numbers to the F.B.I., which can issue an administrative subpoena requiring AT&T to provide the uncensored data. The bureau handles any domestic investigation, but sometimes shares with the C.I.A. the information about the American participant in those calls, the officials said.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the C.I.A., declined to confirm the program. But he said the agency’s intelligence collection activities were lawful and “subject to extensive oversight.”
“The C.I.A. protects the nation and upholds privacy rights of Americans by ensuring that its intelligence collection activities are focused on acquiring foreign intelligence and counterintelligence in accordance with U.S. laws,” he said. “The C.I.A. is expressly forbidden from undertaking intelligence collection activities inside the United States ‘for the purpose of acquiring information concerning the domestic activities of U.S. persons,’ and the C.I.A. does not do so.”
AT&T said in a statement to The Verge that its activities fulfilling the requests with law enforcement and government agencies are "completely lawful and proper." It added that it doesn't comment on national security issues.
"We ensure that we maintain customer information in compliance with the laws of the United States and other countries where information may be maintained," the statement said, according to The Verge. "Like all telecom providers, we routinely charge governments for producing the information provided."
The work of the CIA, Times reported, seems similar to that being conducted by the NSA, which has come under fire from privacy and civil liberties advocates in light of recent leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden. The newspaper reported an anonymous senior official, not confirming the relationship between the CIA and AT&T, said that duplication of activities would make sense because it would provide the CIA with the "speed, agility and tactical responsiveness" it needs.
“That need to act without delay is often best met when CIA has developed its own capabilities to lawfully acquire necessary foreign intelligence information,” the official told the Times.
Read more details about the reported relationship between the CIA's counterterrorism efforts and At&T in the New York Times' full article.