AT&T and the NSA

NSAIt’s been revealed recently that AT&T has been the largest partner of the NSA in collecting data and spying on the Internet. A number of leaks came from the Edward Snowden data that points to AT&T and a lot of other evidence points to them as well.

It appears that AT&T has been a willing partner in surveillance activities since 1985, so this is not a new relationship, but one that has been ongoing for decades. It looks like AT&T is far larger than any of the other NSA partners.

The surveillance goes beyond just telephone records – something that started in a major way in the years after 9/11. All large phone companies have been required through the Patriot Act to submit phone records, and so naturally AT&T would comply just like the other big phone carriers.

But it appears that the NSA, with AT&T’s help, has been spying on Internet traffic for a very long time. AT&T certainly is a natural partner in this because they are one of the few companies that has always had a reason to be present at every major Internet hub in the country.

I have been a customer of AT&T’s for a long time. While their cellular service is significantly overpriced, it works in all of the places I have lived and traveled and I can’t recall ever having had a problem with them as a service provider.

But I wonder how much I should be bothered about this revelation. Part of me says that what AT&T did all these years was a good thing. Clearly the US security system must have a way to keep tabs on suspects in a world where terror is so prevalent. But today you have to wonder how much good all of this spying does. It seems like most of the ‘terrorist’ plots that have been uncovered in the US over the last decade have been misguided people who didn’t have the wherewithal to actually do any real harm. Actual terrorists are sophisticated enough to know that everything is being watched and certainly they have developed ways to avoid surveillance.

And then there is the realization that the NSA hasn’t just been watching the bad guys, but they have been spying on all of us. I don’t have anything in particular to hide, but I still don’t like the idea of the government watching me or the rest of us. And that is mostly because the government is not some nebulous force for good but is rather made up of regular people who are undoubtedly going to abuse the power this surveillance gives them. It’s inevitable that there will be abuses of power when regular people are given access to far more knowledge about people than they should have.

And so I’ve been considering if I should perhaps boycott AT&T as a quiet protest against what they have done and continue to do? But while they have been the largest partner in helping the government spy on us they are certainly not the only one. I have to imagine that the other large carriers all have some role in this as well. For instance, it’s clear in Snowden’s material that Verizon has been involved in this, just not to the extent of AT&T. In the carrier world our choices are limited and I doubt that any of the big carriers are totally clean in this. That would make a boycott somewhat hollow.

So I have really mixed feelings about this. I’ve read all of the science fiction stories that paint a picture of how surveillance eventually works to strangle any society. We have plenty of evidence of how this might look by looking back at the Soviet bloc or looking at places today like North Korea. It would be naïve to think that something like that couldn’t happen here. There would be an uprising in the US if the government tried to impose harsh rules on us in one big swoop, but if they just chip away at freedoms a little bit, day by day, we can eventually end up with a very restricted society. And surveillance is the number one tool that would allow the government to gain that kind of control. In some ways it feels like we have already started down that path.

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