"The most important surveillance story you will see for years just went online, revealing how AT&T became the internet's biggest enemy, secretly collaborating against its customers and partners to destroy your privacy."
"It's eye-opening and ominous the extent to which this is happening right here on American soil."
—Elizabeth Goitein, Brennan Center for Justice
That was how whistleblower and privacy advocate Edward Snowden reacted to the publication of an explosive story by The Intercept on Monday, which reveals for the first time how "fortress-like" AT&T buildings located in eight major American cities have played a central role in a massive National Security Agency (NSA) spying program "that has for years monitored billions of emails, phone calls, and online chats passing across U.S. territory."
"It's eye-opening and ominous the extent to which this is happening right here on American soil," Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Intercept in an interview. "It puts a face on surveillance that we could never think of before in terms of actual buildings and actual facilities in our own cities, in our own backyards."
The Intercept's detailed report—based on a large body of evidence that includes public records, classified NSA documents, and interviews with former AT&T employees—shows how the telecom giant has willingly helped the NSA collect the data of its own customers and those of other companies, thanks to its "unique relationships with other phone and internet providers."
According to Intercept reporters Ryan Gallagher and Henrik Moltke, who bylined Monday's story, eight AT&T facilities—known as "peering sites"—in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. "serve a specific function, processing AT&T customers' data and also carrying large quantities of data from other internet providers."
These fortress-like AT&T buildings across the U.S. are central to a secret NSA program that has monitored billions of communications, documents and sources reveal. https://t.co/YiIo0ZA8lB pic.twitter.com/q5qjl7jKqh
— The Intercept (@theintercept) June 25, 2018
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"The eight locations are featured on a top-secret NSA map, which depicts U.S. facilities that the agency relies upon for one of its largest surveillance programs, code-named FAIRVIEW," Gallagher and Moltke write. "AT&T is the only company involved in FAIRVIEW, which was first established in 1985, according to NSA documents, and involves tapping into international telecommunications cables, routers, and switches."
The report continues:
In 2003, the NSA launched new internet mass surveillance methods, which were pioneered under the FAIRVIEW program. The methods were used by the agency to collect—within a few months—some 400 billion records about people's internet communications and activity, the New York Times previously reported. FAIRVIEW was also forwarding more than one million emails every day to a "keyword selection system" at the NSA's Fort Meade headquarters.
Central to the internet spying are eight "peering link router complex" sites, which are pinpointed on the top-secret NSA map. The locations of the sites mirror maps of AT&T’s networks, obtained by The Intercept from public records.
Fight for the Future (FFTF), an open internet advocacy group, reacted with alarm to The Intercept's reporting on Monday, writing on Twitter, "AT&T has bent over backwards to help the U.S. government spy on essentially all internet traffic."
"Giant telecom companies aren't just "anti-consumer," they're actively helping authoritarian governments and pushing for policies that endanger free expression," FFTF concluded.