The Intercept recently published the locations of eight surveillance hubs for the National Security Agency, or NSA. Piecing together public documents and classified files, the online news publication was able to identify the hubs and found that they were located in AT&T buildings in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, New York, DC, and Atlanta.
The AT&T facilities also operate as ‘peering’ facilities, meaning that they not only route traffic from AT&T customers, but also from other internet providers who have ‘peering agreements’ with the telecom giant.
Typically, network operators send data through their own networks. But oftentimes, some of them opt to send their data through another operator’s infrastructure. That happens when the alternate route happens to be more direct and cost-efficient or when the operator’s own network happens to be experiencing an overload of data traffic.
AT&T’s peering agreements include telecoms companies from Germany, Italy, Sweden, and India.
Speaking to the Intercept, a former AT&T technician said that this set up allows NSA to peek at data that’s interchanged between AT&T’s network and other companies. “The peering links, by the nature of the connections,” he says, “are liable to carry everybody’s traffic at one point or another during the day, or the week, or the year.”
Executive Order 12333
The NSA has what is known as “transit authority”, which enables it to eavesdrop on “communications that originate and terminate in foreign countries, but traverse U.S. territory.” This authority is based on a presidential directive by then-President Ronald Reagan.
It is illegal for the NSA to spy on domestic communications without an individualized court order, however. But in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the agency has been caught eavesdropping on Americans.
Later in 2008, Congress controversially authorized warrantless wiretapping via the Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act, or FISA. The new law allowed the NSA to continue spying without a warrant, provided that it happened accidentally while targeting foreigners.
According to NSA documents, its surveillance systems focus on particular IP addresses, with a particular focus on data passing between the U.S. and what it calls “regions of interest”, including Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt
Adding more gloom to an already shady story, these networking equipment centers are described as tall and imposing structures with few or blacked out windows, seemingly built to withstand a nuclear attack.
This is not the first time that AT&T has been implicated in shady dealings, particularly with the NSA. In 2015, whistle-blower Edward Snowden leaked documents that revealed that the telecom company had helped the NSA conduct surveillance of Internet communications that passed through the US.
AT&T did say that they were required by law to provide the authorities with information in certain situations.
The full investigation by the Intercept can be found here.
Luckily for you, there are tools that add extra layers of security and anonymity to your online activities. One such tool is a VPN, a network of servers scattered around the globe that is used to obfuscate your IP address, i.e. your location. VPNs also encrypt your traffic, making it very difficult for anyone to read it even if they intercept it.
There are many reliable VPNs out there, but throughout our testing, we found ExpressVPN to be the best. Here is a list of the top 5 services out there according to our experts.
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The header image is taken from the article by The Intercept.