The buildings in question are in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC, The Intercept reported on Tuesday, quoting material from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In an exhaustive article, the Intercept said its reporters had examined classified NSA documents, public records and also interviewed several former AT&T employees to establish that the eight buildings were crucial to the NSA spying plan known as FAIRVIEW.
AT&T's co-operation with the NSA went back decades with the company being praised by the spook agency for its "extreme willingness to help". NSA documents were quoted as saying AT&T was valuable not only because it had access to information that passed through the country but also because it had a range of partnerships with other providers.
While there are hundreds of properties owned by AT&T in the US, the eight buildings mentioned are backbone and peering facilities. Companies that peer with AT&T include Sprint, Cogent Communications, Level 3, India's Tata Communications. Italy's Telecom Italia and Germany's Deutsche Telekom.
The report quoted Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Centre for Justice, as saying: "“It’s eye-opening and ominous the extent to which this is happening right here on American soil. It puts a face on surveillance that we could never think of before in terms of actual buildings and actual facilities in our own cities, in our own backyards.”
While initial data exchange between AT&T and other networks takes place at points that are not under AT&T's control, the data is then sent through the eight buildings mentioned where the NSA is able to access what it wants.
The report quoted Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician of 22 years' standing, as saying it was an efficient way of conducting surveillance "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".
An NSA spokesperson, Christopher Augustine, said the agency could “neither confirm nor deny its role in alleged classified intelligence activities".
And an AT&T spokesperson, Jim Greer, said it was “required by law to provide information to government and law enforcement entities by complying with court orders, subpoenas, lawful discovery requests, and other legal requirements".
Additionally, the company provided “voluntary assistance to law enforcement when a person’s life is in danger and in other immediate, emergency situations. In all cases, we ensure that requests for assistance are valid and that we act in compliance with the law".
Graphic: courtesy The Intercept