With media focus of late on NSA spycraft, the surveillance operations of the CIA have flown largely under the radar. On Thursday, however, the New York Times reported that the CIA pays telecoms leviathan AT&T over $10 million each year to gain access to "the company’s vast database of phone records, which includes Americans’ international calls, according to government officials."
The agreement, which AT&T reportedly entered in to willingly without need for subpoena or court order, constitutes another aspect of the U.S.'s sprawling surveillance nexus, operated under the auspices of counterterrorism and, as Charlie Savage notes, "regulated by an inconsistent patchwork of legal standards, procedures and oversight." We see once again in this story the regular willingness of tech and communications companies to work covertly and feed the government's data hoarding complex. AT&T particularly has a rich history in this department, having helped facilitate Bush-era warrantless wiretapping.
Like a number of NSA programs, the classified CIA/AT&T agreement aims to use telephonic metadata to build a picture of users' networks and affiliations. The program is strictly directed to tracing calling patterns overseas, but U.S. citizens' international calls are not exempt from its dragnet.
Via the NYT:
The C.I.A. supplies phone numbers of overseas terrorism suspects, and AT&T searches its database and provides records of calls that may help identify foreign associates, the officials said. The company has a huge archive of data on phone calls, both foreign and domestic, that were handled by its network equipment, not just those of its own customers.
The program adds a new dimension to the debate over government spying and the privacy of communications records, which has been focused on National Security Agency programs in recent months. The disclosure sheds further light on the ties between intelligence officials and communications service providers.