CIA Pays AT&T Millions Of Dollars For Call Data

The New York Times reports the CIA pays AT&T millions of dollars annually for call data. The government agency uses the data for counterterrorism efforts.
Posted at 7:57 PM, Nov 07, 2013

(Image source: Bloomberg / Chris Ratcliffe)

The CIA has reportedly struck a deal for its counterterrorism efforts by paying AT&T more than $10 million a year for call data on overseas terrorism suspects.

"Under the agreement, the CIA provides AT&T with phone numbers of suspected terrorists. AT&T then searches its database for records of the calls. The agreement is voluntary and not under a subpoena or a court order." (Via Bloomberg)

The New York Times first reported the disclosure, saying the deal shows how other agencies besides the NSA use metadata. But unlike the NSA, which must use court orders to collect data, the CIA has bypassed that process and has submitted a larger number of requests.

According to CNN, neither the CIA nor AT&T confirmed or denied the agreement, but the phone company did say it is paid by the government to provide information. 

So AT&T essentially struck a business deal with the CIA: money for information on suspected terrorists abroad. But is that legal? The Washington Post's Brian Fung says maybe, but there's a gray area in the law surrounding the release of information from telecom providers.

For starters, the CIA isn't allowed to spy on Americans. 

According to The Times' report, AT&T hands over data on foreign-to-foreign calls — totally legal. The company partially masks American numbers when data includes an international call to the U.S.

But every telecom provider is governed by certain regulations to protect customer information, except in special cases. It's unclear if national security is one of those exceptions.

Fung writes this is where AT&T might've stepped out of bounds. The Times' report also says this isn't the first time AT&T has cooperated with the government surveillance efforts.

The company provided the Drug Enforcement Agency with 26 years of phone records and was one of three other companies that embedded its own employees within an FBI facility. (Via Mashable)

AT&T said in a 2012 letter to a U.S. representative it had received more than $24 million from government agencies for information between 2007 and 2011.