AT&T this week released its first transparency report purporting to show the number of governmental requests for information concerning the company’s customers. The total number released was over 300,000 requests. However, that cannot possibly be true.
Why? Well, perhaps you have heard once or twice over the past few months that the nation’s telecom providers have transferred metadata on virtually all US customers to the NSA under the so-called “215 metadata program”. AT&T has around 80 Million customers, and virtually all of those customers metadata was handed over to the NSA. Yet, the transparency report includes none of them.
AT&T this week released for the first time in the phone company’s 140-year history a rough accounting of how often the U.S. government secretly demands records on telephone customers. But to those who’ve been following the National Security Agency leaks, Ma Bell’s numbers come up short by more than 80 million spied-upon Americans.
AT&T’s transparency report counts 301,816 total requests for information — spread between subpoenas, court orders and search warrants — in 2013. That includes between 2,000 and 4,000 under the category “national security demands,” which collectively gathered information on about 39,000 to 42,000 different accounts.
There was a time when that number would have seemed high. Today, it’s suspiciously low, given the disclosures by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the NSA’s bulk metadata program. We now know that the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is ordering the major telecoms to provide the NSA a firehose of metadata covering every phone call that crosses their networks.
An accurate transparency report should include a line indicating that AT&T has turned over information on each and every one of its more than 80 million-plus customers. It doesn’t.
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The end result, observes Kevin Bankston, the policy director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, is that Obama’s so-called reform has spawned a misleading report that provides false comfort to AT&T customers — and all Americans.
“Not only is this a complete failure when it comes to providing transparency around bulk data being handed over,” Bankston says, “it is affirmatively misleading to the average reader of the transparency report who would conclude that no bulk data handover ever happened.”