AT&T is reportedly giving up some of its call data to the CIA for counterterrorism investigations — and it’s getting paid for its efforts.
The CIA is paying AT&T more than $10 million a year for the data access, which covers both foreign and international calls, unnamed government officials tell the New York Times. But most surprising is that the deal is completely voluntary — AT&T isn’t being compelled by court orders to cooperate.
That’s a big difference from the NSA’s widespread surveillance efforts, which have the full weight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court behind them. Many tech companies have hinted that court orders forced them to cooperate with the NSA, and Apple just recently released a lengthy report detailing the requests it receives for data from the U.S. government.
As the NYT describes it, the CIA provides phone numbers of terrorism suspects overseas, and AT&T searches through its records to dig up information on potential associates. The deal also covers data that merely passes through AT&T’s equipment, even if it doesn’t belong to one of AT&T’s customers.
While the CIA deal sounds like it covers plenty of the same territory as the NSA’s surveillance, a government official tell the NYT that it makes sense for the CIA to run a program of its own, pointing to a need for a “a certain speed, agility, and tactical responsiveness” that the agency requires for its field operations.
When asked for comment by the NYT, CIA spokesman Dean Boyd didn’t confirm the program, but reiterated that the agency is focused on foreign intelligence. AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel offered up the following statement: “We value our customers’ privacy and work hard to protect it by ensuring compliance with the law in all respects. We do not comment on questions concerning national security.”
While I can’t imagine that anyone is surprised by the CIA’s data collection efforts, it’s worth noting how different this story sounds from the onslaught of NSA surveillance stories. It positions the CIA as a slightly more responsible agency — one that doesn’t force partners to cooperate and is more focused on gathering specific data, not vast troves.
Given that the NYT points to government officials for its story, it makes me wonder if someone tied to the CIA wants to point out the many ways it’s better than the NSA.