NSA Spying Experiencing Network Problems

Revelations of AT&T's extensive cooperation with the NSA could hurt its international business — but European operators have also supplied intelligence services with customer data.
Merkel and Obama strolling in Bavaria in June.

In America, everything’s possible. In Europe, almost everything.

U.S. telecommunications group AT&T helped the country's National Security Agency to spy on the United Nations, according to a New York Times report based on newly-disclosed documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

But in Europe, too, authorities are empowered to listen in on their citizens’ phone calls or read their e-mails.

In Germany, the so-called G-10 law curtails the right to private telecommunications enshrined in Article 10 of the Basic Law, Germany’s constitution. That means that a phone company is obliged to allow certain agencies to monitor and record communications. Those agencies are the foreign intelligence service, the domestic intelligence service and the military intelligence service.

Based on this law, data on German nationals were allegedly passed on to the NSA, according to allegations being investigated by a committee of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.

According to research by broadcasters Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Norddeutscher Rundfunk and the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the foreign intelligence service - the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND - collected data on foreign citizens at the world’s biggest Internet exchange point, the German Commercial Internet Exchange (DE-CIX) in Frankfurt, and passed the information on to the NSA.

But it wasn’t technically possible to separate data on German citizens from that of foreign nationals, so some German data was passed on as well. Allegedly, the Americans didn’t just use the information to fight terrorism but also to conduct targeted espionage of European companies including European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), the maker of Airbus planes which was reorganized and named Airbus Group last year.

Deutsche Telekom, one of Europe’s largest telecoms firms, allegedly passed on data and gave the BND access to its servers in return for a small payment. The company said it was obliged to cooperate and had adhered to the letter of the law.

The revelations could damage AT&T’s business. The group has many foreign customers who attach a lot of importance to the security of their communications.

In France, the General Directorate for External Security, France’s external intelligence agency, is reported to have had access to all data from telecoms company Orange and to have shared it with the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent of the NSA.

In Britain, Vodafone subsidiary Cable & Wireless allegedly gave GCHQ access to its undersea cables.

Britain’s intelligence service cooperates closely with the NSA as part of the “Five Eyes Alliance” between the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

But intelligence agencies evidently find ways to access data illegally as well. Belgian telecoms operator, Belgacom, for example, was hacked. Its clients include the European Union Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament. Security experts allege that Britain’s GCHQ was the culprit.

Mr. Snowden’s revelations have uncovered a number of cases in which U.S. companies cooperated with the NSA. What makes the AT&T case special is its apparent eagerness to supply data.

One NSA document praised AT&T’s "extreme willingness to help" the NSA’s spying efforts.

According to the New York Times, which cited the NSA documents, AT&T provided extensive help to the NSA in conducting surveillance on huge volumes of Internet traffic passing through the United States.

The newspaper also reported that the company gave technical help to the NSA in carrying out a secret court order allowing wiretapping of all Internet communications at the headquarters of the United Nations, an AT&T customer.

The revelations could damage AT&T’s business. Most of its U.S. customers appear unfazed by the revelations, but the group has many foreign customers who attach a lot of importance to the security of their communications.

Business customers account for well over half its annual revenue of close to $133 billion. They include almost every company in the U.S. but also 80 percent of the top 30 German companies listed in the DAX share index, including automakers BMW and Volkswagen.

A few weeks ago VW’s luxury subsidiary Audi announced that AT&T will equip all its U.S. cars with the fast, mobile Internet standard LTE. According to a press release from 2013, AT&T runs the communications network for BMW at its headquarters in Munich as well as for its regional headquarters in Argentina, Canada, Mexico and Panama and for BMW’s sites in the U.S.

Audi and BMW declined to provide immediate comment.

AT&T is likely to have a tough time explaining its intelligence cooperation, especially to international clients. It’s not the only company that had to pass on private data to the NSA. But others at least put up a fight. AT&T, by all accounts, was submissive.


Thomas Jahn is Handelsblatt's New York correspondent, Ina Karabasz is an editor with Handelsblatt Live, Christof Kerkmann covers the technology sector for the paper. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]