The nation’s largest telecommunications companies are maintaining their silence in the wake of a startling new report describing how they’ve worked with the National Security Agency to help build a surveillance system with the capacity to cover huge swaths of U.S. internet traffic. The new revelations, detailed in a Wall Street Journal report published Wednesday, are among the latest in a series of disclosures about the NSA’s secret surveillance programs, which have prompted alarm from top lawmakers as well as civil libertarians and privacy advocates.
AT&T and Verizon, which control key points of the nation’s communications infrastructure, have worked with the NSA to install equipment that “copies, scans and filters large amounts of the traffic that passes through,” according to the Journal. The telecom giants have installed the filtering equipment at more than a dozen key points throughout the nation’s communications grid, the paper reported. On Wednesday, the U.S. government declassified a secret court document revealing that the NSA inappropriately collected tens of thousands of email records to or from Americans annually between 2008 to 2011.
For years, civil liberties groups, privacy advocates and technology experts have speculated about the extent to which the telecom giants work with, and provide access to, the NSA. In 2006, a former AT&T technician revealed that the NSA had set up a monitoring point at an AT&T facility in San Francisco — the now-legendary Room 641A at 611 Folsom Street. On Wednesday, the Journal reported that Verizon has placed intercepts at key locations in the largest U.S. cities, in the latest indication of secret cooperation between the NSA and the telecom giants.
“Today’s revelations underscore that restoring the public’s trust is the biggest challenge the government now faces,” Sascha Meinrath, Director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, said in a statement. “That’s why it is crucial that the high-level external review group the President promised to create be made up of people who are not involved in the current program or making money from the existing surveillance regime.”
Reached by TIME, both AT&T and Verizon again declined to comment on the latest NSA revelations or the role the corporate giants play in the NSA’s surveillance programs. In the 11 weeks since the Guardian and the Washington Post began revealing classified aspects of the NSA programs, based on leaked documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the telecom giants have maintained a disciplined silence about the extent of their cooperation with the government, despite repeated requests for comment.
“The telecommunications companies are ordered to comply with this,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “That’s their role in this. As in a wide variety of other contexts, they get served with an order and they comply with the court’s order.” The official declined to either confirm or deny whether any of the telecommunications companies had ever objected to participating in the program.
The purpose of the systems is to collect “foreign intelligence” in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies. The systems are authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Although the systems are supposed to target people “reasonably believed” to be located outside the U.S., recent revelations suggest that domestic communications have been “incidentally” collected.
The NSA says that it has “minimization” procedures designed to ensure that U.S. citizens are not caught up in the government’s surveillance. In some cases, however, the NSA “retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone calls made with Internet technology,” according to the Journal. One U.S. official told the paper that the NSA is “not wallowing willy-nilly” through Americans’ idle online chatter. “We want high-grade ore,” the official said.
In another NSA program, authorized by the USA PATRIOT Act, the telecom giants work with the agency to provide access to the phone records of tens of millions of U.S. citizens, including the number called, when the call was made, and the length of the conversation. The Guardian revealed a top-secret court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) — a secret court made up of 11 federal judges appointed by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts — which requires Verizon to provide the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis” with this “metadata” on all phone calls made by its U.S. customers.
In a joint statement issued late Wednesday night, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency sought to push back against certain aspects of the Journal’s article and other media reports. “The NSA does not sift through and have unfettered access to 75% of the United States’ online communications,” the statement said. “In its foreign intelligence mission, and using all its authorities, NSA ‘touches’ about 1.6%, and analysts only look at 0.00004%, of the world’s Internet traffic.”
“The assistance from the providers, which is compelled by the law, is the same activity that has been previously revealed as part of Section 702 collection and PRISM,” the ODNI/NSA statement continued. “The collection under FISA section 702 is the most significant tool in the NSA collection arsenal for the detection, identification, and disruption of terrorist threats to the U.S. and around the world.”
For decades, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have been “tapping” the undersea cables that snake along the ocean floor between countries. During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy sent submarines to monitor communications going to and coming from the Soviet Union, in some of the most clandestine espionage missions in U.S. history. Most of the details of these operations remain shrouded in secrecy, but over the years, some pieces of information have been revealed. The new NSA revelations are just the latest to suggest that the U.S. intelligence community also has the ability to extract information from key, land-based points of the nation’s communications infrastructure.
“The fact that the NSA is sitting on our domestic fiber network, vacuuming up masses of Internet communications from key telecommunications switches, has repeatedly been front page news since it was first reported nearly eight years ago,” Kevin Bankston, Free Expression Director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement. “Yet because the Bush and Obama Administrations have insisted that the basic fact of the wiretapping network’s existence is a secret, we have not been able to have a serious public discussion about whether it’s legal or appropriate for our military to have easy access to most of America’s Internet traffic.”