As part of a voluntary contract, the CIA pays AT&T more than $10 million per year for access to the company's giant database of international phone records, which includes information on Americans, according to a report in the New York Times.
Per the Times, this is how the agreement works: The CIA, again without any sort of subpoena or court order, gives a phone number of a "terrorism suspect" to AT&T, which then searches through its database for any information that might help identify the CIA target. The database includes information not just on AT&T customers, but on any phone calls that passed through its networks.
The majority of the data provided by AT&T involves calls between foreigners, though obviously sometimes information about calls to or from Americans is handed over as well. But, uh, don't worry too much: According to the Times' government sources, AT&T "masks" several digits of Americans' phone numbers, though those numbers are easily unmasked with the help of an administrative subpoena from the FBI.
Unlike the communications giants targeted by the NSA, like Google, Yahoo, and Verizon,
AT&T appears to be the only company that not only voluntarily partnered with a U.S. spy agency but also directly profited from that partnership. (CORRECTION: The NSA reportedly paid communications companies, like Verizon and AT&T, hundreds of millions of dollars for accessing their databases.)
"We value our customers' privacy and work hard to protect it by ensuring compliance with the law in all respects," Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, told the Times. "We do not comment on questions concerning national security."
This is not the first time AT&T has worked with – and accepted payment from – a U.S. law enforcement agency: In September, the New York Times reported that AT&T provided the DEA with phone records as part of a 26-year-long agreement.