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You’ll never guess how the NSA managed to spy on the Internet for so long

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Mike Mozart/Flickr
Verizon finally has a trump card it can reliably play against chief rival AT&T. No matter how bad things get, at least Verizon wasn’t the one that helped the National Security Agency (NSA) spy on Internet traffic. According to a stunningly detailed new report originally released by the New York Times, new documents from the government agency reveal that AT&T has been in bed with the U.S. government since 2003, forming a “highly collaborative” relationship based on the telecommunication giant’s “extreme willingness to help.”

As per the latest revelations, AT&T allowed the NSA access to “billions of emails” and also “provided technical assistance” in a move that ultimately allowed the snooping agency to wiretap all the Internet activity that took place in the United Nations headquarters, conveniently an AT&T user (remind someone to cancel that subscription ASAP).

More concerning still is the apparent eagerness with which the telecom company helped the U.S. government in its endeavors. In one previously classified document, NSA agents are reminded to be cordial at AT&T — “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship,” the report reads.

Over the course of the 10 years between 2003 and 2013, the NSA managed to establish what they described as a “’live’ presence on the global net,” with access to some 400 billion Internet metadata records in the first few months alone, thanks to AT&T. Some 1 million emails were sent daily to agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, the Times reported, and in 2011, a ramp-up from the NSA’s surveillance methods led to their acquisition of some 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records per day.

The program with AT&T, named Fairview by the NSA, cost the agency $188 billion, amounting to twice the amount spent on the next most robust program of the same purpose. While Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing in 2013 has made it more difficult to determine the extent of the relationship between the telecommunications leader and the government agency today, the comprehensiveness of their partnership, previously unknown to the public, has certainly raised red flags everywhere.

In an interview with the Times, AT&T spokesman Brad Burns insisted, “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.” He did not provide any further details, but it does seem difficult to imagine that such large volumes of traffic and data were all directly and immediately applicable to the endangerment of human lives.

In its decade of documented collaboration, the NSA garnered “massive amounts of data” (including 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails a day in 2013), all courtesy of AT&T. So if you’re thinking of switching carriers, you may want to take the latest Times report into consideration in making your choice.

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