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AT&T Rebuffs Call to Reveal Customer Data Given to NSA

Telecom giant refuses to submit to increased transparency despite revolt from privacy advocates and its own shareholders

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Telecommunications giants AT&T, which has long been among the companies at the center of programs linking government surveillance and the private sector, is refusing tell customers and shareholders the amount of private data it has been sharing with the NSA or other U.S. spy agencies.

Implicated during the Bush years for helping the NSA conduct its warrantless wiring tap program out of a switch room in one of its west coast offices, the company has again come under fire from investors and the general public in the wake of startling revelations about teleph one and digital surveillance programs made possible by leaked NSA documents released to the press by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Though other companies are expanding transparency by releasing periodic reports on the number and nature of requests received by the NSA, AT&T sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday explaining why it has decided to buck a request by a coalition of civil liberties group and shareholders to do the same.

As the Associated Press reports:

The telecom giant's letter was a response to a shareholder revolt sparked on Nov. 20 by the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the ACLU of Northern California and others. The groups are demanding that AT&T and Verizon be more transparent about their dealings with the NSA.

In the letter, AT&T said information about assisting foreign intelligence surveillance activities is almost certainly classified. The company said it should not have to address the issue at its annual shareholders meeting this spring.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of Northern California said AT&T has overstepped its bounds.

"It's outrageous that AT&T is trying to block the shareholder proposal," she said. "Customers have a right to know how often their private information is ending up in the government's hands."

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said "the letter speaks for itself. We have no comment beyond it."

In November, the New York TImes revealed that AT&T was receiving vast payments from the CIA in exchange for access to its trove of customer "metadata" all across the globe.

As Common Dreams reported at the time:

The revelation shows the tacit (and voluntary) agreement and financial arrangements that the intelligence agency has made with private companies in an effort to monitor global communications. Most striking is that CIA program is conducted without the authority of subpoenas or court oversight and a legal loophole, creating by working with domestic law enforcement agencies, allows the CIA to do an end-run around the laws designed to keep it from spying on U.S. citizens.

Separate from surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency or those otherwise divulged by documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the ongoing agreement, according to unnamed officials who spoke to the Times, is "conducted under a voluntary contract, not under subpoenas or court orders compelling the company to participate."

In essence, by working in tandem—and leveraging the available metadata provided by the telecom company for a price—the CIA and FBI can create a complete view of international phone records, including phone calls made or received by U.S. citizens.

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