The largest technology and telecommunications companies in the Unites States have faced intense scrutiny following blockbuster revelations delivered by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents detailing their involvement in the NSA’s controversial surveillance programs. Now, following months of pressure from civil liberties groups, public interest advocates and shareholders, AT&T has announced that it will join Verizon and publish a transparency report with information about government data requests.
The twin moves by the nation’s top telecom titans underscore their apparent desire to address the damage to their reputations caused by Snowden’s revelations. Among other disclosures, Snowden gave evidence of a top-secret program authorized by the USA PATRIOT Act and facilitated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), in which the telecom companies reportedly provide the government daily access to the phone records of tens of millions of U.S. citizens. This so-called “metadata” includes the phone numbers involved in the call, when the call was made and the length of the conversation.
On Friday, less than 24 hours after Verizon announced plans to release a transparency report, AT&T said it would follow suit. Starting in early 2014, AT&T will disclose the total number of law enforcement agency requests received from government authorities in criminal cases; information on the number of subpoenas, court orders and warrants; the number of customers affected; and details about the legal demands AT&T receives. The decision by Verizon and AT&T to publish transparency reports represents the first public action by the telecom titans in the wake of Snowden’s NSA revelations. For months, both companies have maintained a disciplined silence.
“To further our efforts to be as transparent as possible within the government guidelines in which we operate, like Verizon recently announced, we intend to publish a semi-annual online report that will provide information on the number of law enforcement requests for customer information that our company receives in the countries in which we do business,” Wayne Watts, AT&T Senior Executive Vice President and General Counsel, said in a statement. AT&T said it expects to publish the first report, covering information received in 2013, in early 2014.
“This is a watershed moment,” said Kevin Bankston, Policy Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “In the space of 24 hours, transparency reporting has become the norm in the telecommunications industry. We’re very pleased to see these companies taking these steps and look forward to them joining with public interest advocates and pressing for legislation that would clearly authorize Internet and telecommunications companies to publish basic data about both the law enforcement requests and the national security requests that they receive from the government.”
Like Verizon, AT&T’s report will not separately disclose information about national security requests received by the company, including orders made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the controversial law that provides the legal basis for many NSA surveillance programs. FISA requests are approved by the FISC, a secret court made up of 11 federal judges appointed by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts. To date, no company has been granted permission to separately disclose requests made under FISA.
“They can’t unilaterally decide to publish that information,” says Bankston, whose organization has taken the lead in the campaign for NSA reform and greater transparency from the nation’s top technology and telecom firms. “We hope the announcements of the past two days are a prelude to the phone companies joining the fight at the FISA court to press for their right to be more transparent.”
In August, a senior U.S. intelligence official described the cooperation of the telecom giants with the NSA surveillance programs in blunt terms. “The telecommunications companies are ordered to comply with this,” the official said. “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.” In its statement, AT&T said that “any disclosures regarding classified information should come from the government, which is in the best position to determine what can be lawfully disclosed and would or would not harm national security.”
AT&T and Verizon have been particularly stung by revelations that they allow the government access to their networks for the purposes of surveillance. In its statement, AT&T sought to push back against the notion that it provides the government with such access. “We do not allow any government agency to connect directly to our network to gather, review or retrieve our customers’ information,” said Watts.
The veracity of that statement may hinge on the company’s definition of the word “directly.” 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. In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon has placed intercepts at key locations in the largest U.S. cities.