The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees’ Americans’ privacy. However, it’s been clear for years that what the Constitution guarantees and what the National Security Agency (NSA) does are two different things.
It is unconstitutional and illegal for the NSA to spy on communications that are completely within the United States, but that appears to be precisely what is happening. According to a brand-new report from Ryan Gallagher and Henrik Moltke of the Intercept, NSA documents indicate that the NSA is systematically capturing our emails, Americans’ phone calls and text messages at certain key strategic points on AT&T’s immensely powerful Internet network. There are only eight facilities that allow for direct access into AT&T’s “common backbone”, and according to leaked documents the Intercept was able to identify the exact location of each of those facilities.
According to the Intercept, “Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., in each of these cities, The Intercept has identified an AT&T facility containing networking equipment that transports large quantities of internet traffic across the United States and the world. A body of evidence – including classified NSA documents, public records, and interviews with several former AT&T employees – indicates that the buildings are central to an NSA spying initiative that has for years monitored billions of emails, phone calls, and online chats passing across U.S. territory.”
Apparently, the relationship between AT&T and the NSA has been ongoing “for decades”, and it isn’t just data from AT&T customers that is being collected.
In fact, according to an AT&T technician that worked for the company for 22 years, the NSA is able to capture “all the data that’s interchanged between AT&T’s network and other companies,” and because of the nature of how the network functions, AT&T is “liable to carry everybody’s traffic at one point or another during the day.
This spying on Americans started years ago and has only grown, even though the NSA is chartered to only spy overseas.
The NSA’s largest surveillance program is called FAIRVIEW. AT&T is the only company involved in FAIRVIEW, which was first established in 1985, according to NSA documents, and involves tapping into international telecommunications cables, routers, and switches.
In 2003, the NSA launched new internet mass surveillance methods, which were pioneered under the FAIRVIEW program. The methods were used by the agency to collect – within a few months – some 400 billion records about people’s internet communications and activity, the New York Times previously reported. FAIRVIEW was also forwarding more than 1 million emails every day to a “keyword selection system” at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters. The keyword selection system can target emails and texts that use specific words like “bomb” or “explosive.”
Unfortunately, it appears that the NSA algorithms don’t exclude phrases like, “That new Broadway play is a bomb,” or “that front page article in the Washington Post on Trump is explosive.”
Nor does the law impact this domestic surveillance. According to the law, Reasonable, Articulable Suspicion (RAS) that a certain selector is associated with a designated foreign terrorism group and/or Iran is required to access domestic communications with a FISA court order. However, as was seen in the monitoring of the Trump presidential campaign, it is easy for an intelligence group to acquire FISA court orders with questionable intelligence or reasons.
The NSA’s Domestic Surveillance Web
The data exchange between AT&T and other networks initially takes place outside AT&T’s control, sources said, at third-party data centers that are owned and operated by companies such as California’s Equinix. But the data is then routed – in whole or in part – through the eight AT&T buildings, where the NSA taps into it.
By monitoring what it calls the “peering circuits” at these eight NSA sites, the spy agency can collect “not only AT&T’s data, they get all the data that’s interchanged between AT&T’s network and other companies,” according to Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician who worked with the company for 22 years. It is an efficient point to conduct internet surveillance, Klein said, “because the peering links, by the nature of the connections, are liable to carry everybody’s traffic at one point or another during the day, or the week, or the year.”
The NSA appears to be engaged in a data collection program that is far beyond anything that we have ever seen before in human history.
Using investigative reporting techniques, the Intercept reporters managed to pinpoint the buildings. The Washington, D.C. building is a fortress-like structure less than half a mile south of the U.S. Capitol; in Chicago, an earthquake-resistant skyscraper on the west side; in Atlanta, a 429-foot art deco structure in the heart of the city’s downtown district; and in Dallas, a cube-like building with narrow windows and large vents on its exterior, located in the Old East district.
On the west coast of the U.S., there are three more facilities: in downtown Los Angeles, a concrete tower near the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Staples Center; in Seattle, a 15-story building with blacked-out windows and reinforced concrete foundations, near the city’s waterfront; and in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, a building where it was previously claimed that the NSA was monitoring internet traffic from a secure room on the sixth floor.
The most interesting of these buildings is in New York City. It is a nuclear blast-resistant, windowless facility on the south side of Manhattan. According to the building contract, it has 29 floors with three basement levels, tanks for 250,000 gallons of fuel, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.
The building was designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, whose grand vision was to create a communication nerve center like a “20th century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.”
For many New Yorkers, 33 Thomas Street — known as the “Long Lines Building” — has been a source of mystery for years. It has been labeled one of the city’s weirdest and most iconic skyscrapers, but little information has ever been published about its purpose.
NSA documents state that a “partner” called LITHIUM, which is NSA’s code name for AT&T, supervises visits to the site. It instructs employees traveling to TITANTPOINTE (the NSA codename) to head to the FBI’s New York field office. It adds that trips to the site should be coordinated with “LITHIUM” and the FBI, including an FBI “site watch officer.”
NSA employees are told to hire a “cover vehicle” through the FBI, especially if they are transporting equipment to the site. In order to keep their true identities secret while visiting, agency employees are instructed not to wear any clothing displaying NSA badges or insignia. Upon arrival at TITANPOINTE, the NSA document says, agency employees should ring the buzzer, sign in, and wait for a person to come and meet them.
The NSA’s documents also reveal that one of TITANPOINTE’s functions is to conduct surveillance as part of a program called SKIDROWE, which focuses on intercepting satellite communications. The roof of 33 Thomas Street houses a number of satellite dishes and Federal Communications Commission records confirm that 33 Thomas Street is the only location in New York City where AT&T has an FCC license for satellite earth stations.
The SKIDROWE spying program focuses on covertly vacuuming up internet data — known as “digital network intelligence” — as it is passing between foreign satellites. The harvested data is then made accessible through XKEYSCORE, a Google-like mass surveillance system that the NSA’s employees use to search through huge quantities of information about people’s emails, chats, Skype calls, passwords, and internet browsing histories.
This building has also been involved in Middle Eastern operations. In one case that may likely involved 33 Thomas Street, NSA engineers with the BLARNEY program worked to eavesdrop on data from a connection serving the United Nations mission in New York. This spying resulted in “collection against the email address of the U.N. General leading the monitoring mission in Syria,” an April 2012 memo said.
Thanks to AT&T, the NSA has direct access to 197 petabytes of American’s communications every day - the equivalent of more than 49 trillion pages of text, or 60 billion average-sized mp3 files.
Once data has been collected it is forwarded to a “centralized processing facility” and from there it is sent to NSA headquarters in Fort Meade.
The NSA “centralized processing facility” is code-named PINECONE and is located somewhere in New Jersey. Inside the PINECONE facility, there is a secure space in which with both NSA-controlled and AT&T-controlled equipment. Internet traffic passes through an AT&T “distribution box” to two NSA systems. From there, the data is then transferred about 200 miles southwest to its final destination: NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland.
At the Maryland compound, the communications collected from AT&T’s networks are integrated into powerful systems called MAINWAY and MARINA, which the NSA uses to analyze metadata – such as the “to” and “from” parts of emails, and the times and dates they were sent. The communications obtained from AT&T are also made accessible through a tool named XKEYSCORE, which NSA employees use to search through the full contents of emails, instant messenger chats, web-browsing histories, webcam photos, information about downloads from online services, and Skype sessions.
Another surveillance system is PRISM, which was revealed by Edward Snowden. It frequently “accidently” grabs domestic communications by Americans. An NSA analyst "tasks" the PRISM system for information about a new surveillance target. The request to add a new target is passed automatically to a supervisor who reviews the "selectors," or search terms. The supervisor must endorse the analyst's "reasonable belief," defined as 51 percent confidence, that the specified target is a foreign national who is overseas at the time of collection. Given the biases of the NSA analyst and the criteria, it’s likely that over half of the communications are Americans that are in the US.
Although this NSA project has crossed the line in terms of domestic surveillance, there is a serious question if anything can be done.
As is seen in the daily headlines in America, the intelligence community has refused to yield to Congress and the Trump Administration – even though there are many questions about their behavior and a clear rational to reform them.
If Trump and Congress are unable or unwilling to rein in domestic surveillance, what can an article by the Intercept or a bit of public outrage do? Probably nothing.
Nor will the US permit anyone to harass AT&T. Historically, AT&T has always maintained close ties with the government. A good example of this came in June 1976, when a congressional subcommittee served AT&T with a subpoena demanding that it hand over information about its alleged role in unlawful FBI wiretapping of phone calls. President Gerald Ford personally intervened to block the subpoena, stating that AT&T “was and is an agent of the United States acting under contract with the Executive Branch.” Ford said the company was in a “unique position” with respect to telephone and other communication lines in the U.S., and therefore it had been “necessary for the Executive Branch to rely on its services to assist in acquiring certain information necessary to the national defense and foreign policy.”
If no one will stop this massive surveillance, what is the future? Unfortunately, it may be seen in a speech made by Winston Churchill in the early days of WWII. Speaking about the Nazi threat, he said, “the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
It appears that the NSA has developed that “perverted science.”