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AT&T network revealed as the most useful asset of spymaster NSA

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AT&T has been unveiled as one of the NSA’s biggest assets as the intelligence agency proves to be a difficult rash to get rid of.

In years gone by, the NSA has not been the shining light of the intelligence community. What started off as a little bit of spying on leaders of movements protesting the Vietnam War and economic espionage, evolved into warrantless wiretapping, illegally obtaining evidence against US citizens and various different examples of unethical data mining. Now it has been revealed AT&T is the telco harbouring the NSA’s continued and questionable Big Brother ambitions.

According to The Intercept, eight AT&T buildings across the US are used for the NSAs surveillance initiative, known as ‘Fairview’. The programme dates back to 1985, and gives the agency direct access to raw data that passes through the US, including emails, web browsing, social media and any other form of unencrypted online activity. The eight hubs in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, provide the backbone of the project, for which AT&T is the only telco involved.

While AT&T has a significant network which would prove to be an asset to any intelligence agency, it is the relationships with other organizations which seems to be one of the most important factors here. ‘Peering’ is a common practice in the communications world, allowing telcos to offload traffic onto another telco’s network should congestion get to a certain point. AT&T not only has these relationships with US telcos, but many international ones such as Telia, Tata Communications, Telecom Italia, and Deutsche Telekom, offering a glutton of data to anyone monitoring the network.

Only eight of AT&T facilities across the US offer access to the networks’ ‘common backbone’, though through these data centres the NSA can access a significant amount of information, both domestic and international. Although the data exchange during the ‘peering process’ takes place outside of the AT&T network initially, the data is then routed through the telco’s network. Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician claims it is an incredibly efficient means of monitoring as everyone will cross the AT&T network at some point through the practice of peering. Data is collected through AT&T access links, before being transferred to a processing facility, codenamed ‘Pinecone’, and then onto two NSA systems, before making its way to the spymaster’s HQ in Fort Meade in Maryland.

The NSA calls this idea ‘home field advantage’. It describes the location and strategic importance of the US as home of many of the world’s largest internet companies. With the vast amount of the world’s intercontinental internet traffic travelling through subsea fibre optic cables, a large portion of this information pass across the cables is routed at one point through the US. Data travels across the internet in the cheapest fashion, not the most direct, therefore the bounties offered to the NSA are significant. 197 petabytes of data pass across what AT&T describes as the ‘world’s most powerful network’ every day.

Once at NSA HQ, the data is integrated into two databases called Mainway and Marina, which store and analyse the metadata. The information is then made available to NSA employees through tool named XKeyScore. Here the NSA can access everything from the content of emails to web-browser history and webcam photos.

Although we should hardly be surprised by the notion the NSA is playing an active role in snooping through the lives of citizens, the fact AT&T is being described as a demonstrating an ‘extreme willingness to help’ and ‘aggressively involved’ is a bit more difficult to swallow. The consumer relationship with providers is built on trust, and this does seem to be somewhat of a direct violation of it.

Companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, do co-operate with authorities when legally obliged to, though these requests are seemingly put through the stress test before being accepting; passing across personal information seems to be only in the circumstances where saying no is not an option. Few have been described in such buddying terms as the NSA does in congratulating the telco.

What is worth noting is AT&T can be legally compelled to co-operate with intelligence agencies in the US, though there seems to be little resistance.

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