Check it out, guys. It's a creepy revelation about the government spying on your phone calls that didn't come from Edward Snowden's NSA leak. Nope, just your standard sketchy CIA arrangements with a telecommunications company—AT&T to be exact.
Turns out the spy agency's reportedly been paying AT&T over $10 million a year to spy on phone calls. The CIA simply gives AT&T a list of numbers, and AT&T voluntarily serves up the data. (No subpoena or warrant required!) They're mainly after the phone records of overseas terrorism suspects but sometimes Americans find their way into the mix. In this case, AT&T "masks" several digits of the Americans' phone numbers, though if the CIA wants to find out who those people are, they just have to ask the FBI to issue a subpoena. And let's not forget that when the CIA pays for AT&T's help, the money's coming right out of taxpayers' pockets.
AT&T's starting to look like a real pawn in this game, too. This is the same company that let the NSA tap directly into its fiber optic cables during the Bush era. It's also the same company that embedded employees in the FBI as well as drug agencies to help them tap phones better. They didn't just look at phone records in real time, either. AT&T built a massive database of every phone call that's passed through their switches for nearly three decades.
What's funny about this news is how commonplace the whole arrangement seems to us in the post-Snowden era. It was just a couple of months ago that we learned about how the NSA pays a scattering of Silicon Valley companies millions of dollars to help them run the PRISM program. On a broader level, though, it's just not that surprising to learn about a spy agency cozying up to the phone company so that it can listen in on your phone calls without a warrant. That said, spies are going to spy. [NYT]
Update (2:15pm): AT&T just sent us this statement:
In all cases, whenever any governmental entity anywhere seeks information from us, we ensure that the request and our response are completely lawful and proper. We ensure that we maintain customer information in compliance with the laws of the United States and other countries where information may be maintained. Like all telecom providers, we routinely charge governments for producing the information provided. We do not comment on questions concerning national security.