The Central Intelligence Agency is reportedly paying AT&T the princely sum of $10m a year in exchange for a detailed list of international calls made on its networks.
Several government officials familiar with the program told The New York Times that the system is a voluntary one by the company, and was set up in 2010. It apparently allows the CIA to provide a list of numbers used by suspects to the US telco, which then identifies other numbers contacted and who they called afterwards.
The CIA's remit begin "at the water's edge," meaning it can only act on suspects outside of US soil. To keep this program legal if a number comes up that belongs to a US citizen then AT&T blanks out the details, although the CIA can then ask the FBI to investigate.
Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, told the NYT: "We value our customers' privacy and work hard to protect it by ensuring compliance with the law in all respects. We do not comment on questions concerning national security."
AT&T has had problems with spying on its customers in the past. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the company allowed the NSA to install monitoring stations in its San Francisco headquarters. After Mark Klein, one of AT&T's engineers, blew the whistle on the practice the telco was sued by the EFF before the government granted it retroactive immunity.
While apparently legal, the CIA's deal with the company does show some serious initiative by the company in turning surveillance into a revenue source. That said, the NSA does also fund companies taking part in the PRISM surveillance scheme to cover expenses, according to documents leaked by ex-intelligence agency contractor Edward Snowden.
"The CIA protects the nation and upholds privacy rights of Americans by ensuring that its intelligence collection activities are focused on acquiring foreign intelligence and counterintelligence in accordance with U.S. laws," said CIA spokesman Dean Boyd.
"The CIA is expressly forbidden from undertaking intelligence collection activities inside the United States 'for the purpose of acquiring information concerning the domestic activities of US persons,' and the CIA does not do so." ®