is paying AT&T
some $10 million a year for access to certain customer call data that includes international-to-international calls as well as some domestic-to-international calls, according to a New York Times report citing information from “government officials”.
The CIA’s involvement is part of an overseas counterterrorism effort, and AT&T’s participation is voluntary. The way it works is that the CIA gives AT&T the phone numbers of foreign terrorism suspects, and then AT&T checks the numbers against its vast database (which includes calls handled by its network and not merely those of its own customers) and pulls up records that can help identify that suspect’s overseas associates.
The data does not include the actual call content, but rather data such as the date, duration of the call, and phone numbers. When the call involves a U.S. citizen on the domestic end, that person’s identity and at least some of the phone number digits are kept anonymous, although the CIA can share that information with the FBI, which can then subpoena AT&T for that redacted data.
It’s tempting to paint this program as more of the same sort of secretive and invasive domestic spying that the NSA
has been conducting, but it’s important not to lump the two together. The primary difference here is that AT&T’s involvement here is voluntary, and the company is able to keep a certain amount of data from the CIA’s eyes that would otherwise probably violate user privacy. Further, there appears to be a certain level of oversight with the CIA program, as opposed to the NSA and the FISA
court that have appeared to be a thinly-veiled way to circumvent laws protecting the rights of U.S. citizens.
In an age where the U.S.’s primary enemy is more of a twisted worldview (ie, terrorism) than a specific unified and organized group of people, this alliance between the CIA and AT&T is one of those slight compromises U.S. citizens may need to make to remain safe from attacks.
That said, the above is (and should be) very much up for debate. Just because the CIA’s program involves voluntary participation from AT&T, that doesn’t mean that it’s all legal and above board. The CIA’s overall mission involves spying and collecting data and secrecy, so it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to find abuses hiding in this program, too.