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New documents reveal AT&T's hand in NSA spy program

The latest revelation culled from documents provided by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden suggest that AT&T has been providing information to the NSA for decades.

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A sign stands outside the National Security Agency (NSA) campus on in Fort Meade, Md. on June 6, 2013. Newly disclosed documents from the files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reveal a close partnership between the spy agency and telecom powerhouse AT&T.

Patrick Semansky/AP Photo/File

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Newly disclosed documents reveal a close partnership between the National Security Agency and telecommunications giant AT&T that helped bolster the spy agency’s monitoring of Americans’ Internet activity.

The documents, provided by the former agency contractor Edward Snowden, show that, over the course of decades and under a variety of legal rules, AT&T gave the NSA access to billions of emails that flowed through its domestic networks and helped carry out a secret court order that allowed the wiretapping of Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, according to an analysis of the reports by The New York Times and ProPublica.

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The revelations could draw renewed attention to the ongoing legal dispute between the NSA and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group that is suing the spy agency on behalf of AT&T customers to stop what the EFF says is the “illegal unconstitutional and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records.”

The new documents paint a picture of NSA surveillance on AT&T’s Internet backbone in the United States, and could be central to the EFF’s case, according to ProPublica.

“Privacy advocates have long argued in court that grabbing portions of so many emails – involving people not suspected of anything – is a violation of the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures provided by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution,” the news outlet reports.

EFF executive director Cindy Cohn told ProPublica that the foundation will present the new information in court.

The relationship between AT&T and the NSA stretches as far back as 1985 through the program called Fairview, according to the Times/ProPublica report. Other telecom companies have partnered with the agency, as well, but AT&T – identified in the documents not by name but through a code name – is behind 80 percent of the information the NSA collects, according to one document.

In 2003, AT&T became the first of the NSA’s corporate partners to set up a new collection capability that the agency called a “ ‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of the first months of operation, the program was forwarding more than a million emails a day to the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

In response to the report, AT&T spokesman Brad Burns told the Times: “We do not voluntarily provide information to any investigating authorities other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence.”