The secrets are hidden behind fortified walls in cities across the United States, inside towering windowless skyscrapers and fortress-like concrete structures that were built to withstand earthquakes and even nuclear attack. Thousands of people pass by the buildings each day and rarely give them a second glance, because their function is not publicly known. They are an integral part of one of the world’s largest telecommunications networks – and they are also linked to a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program.
Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. In each of these cities, The Intercept has identified an AT&T facility containing networking equipment that transports large quantities of internet traffic across the United States and the world. A body of evidence – including classified NSA documents, public records, and interviews with several former AT&T employees – indicates that the buildings are central to an NSA spying initiative that has for years monitored billions of emails, phone calls, and online chats passing across U.S. territory.
The NSA considers AT&T to be one of its most trusted partners and has lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.” It is a collaboration that dates back decades. Little known, however, is that its scope is not restricted to AT&T’s customers. According to the NSA’s documents, it values AT&T not only because it “has access to information that transits the nation,” but also because it maintains unique relationships with other phone and internet providers. The NSA exploits these relationships for surveillance purposes, commandeering AT&T’s massive infrastructure and using it as a platform to covertly tap into communications processed by other companies.
Much has previously been reported about the NSA’s surveillance programs. But few details have been disclosed about the physical infrastructure that enables the spying. Last year, The Intercept highlighted a likely NSA facility in New York City’s Lower Manhattan. Now, we are revealing for the first time a series of other buildings across the U.S. that appear to serve a similar function, as critical parts of one of the world’s most powerful electronic eavesdropping systems, hidden in plain sight.
“It’s eye-opening and ominous the extent to which this is happening right here on American soil,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It puts a face on surveillance that we could never think of before in terms of actual buildings and actual facilities in our own cities, in our own backyards.”
There are hundreds of AT&T-owned properties scattered across the U.S. The eight identified by The Intercept serve a specific function, processing AT&T customers’ data and also carrying large quantities of data from other internet providers. They are known as “backbone” and “peering” facilities.
While network operators would usually prefer to send data through their own networks, often a more direct and cost-efficient path is provided by other providers’ infrastructure. If one network in a specific area of the country is overloaded with data traffic, another operator with capacity to spare can sell or exchange bandwidth, reducing the strain on the congested region. This exchange of traffic is called “peering” and is an essential feature of the internet.
Because of AT&T’s position as one of the U.S.’s leading telecommunications companies, it has a large network that is frequently used by other providers to transport their customers’ data. Companies that “peer” with AT&T include the American telecommunications giants Sprint, Cogent Communications, and Level 3, as well as foreign companies such as Sweden’s Telia, India’s Tata Communications, Italy’s Telecom Italia, and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom.
AT&T currently boasts 19,500 “points of presence” in 149 countries where internet traffic is exchanged. But only eight of the company’s facilities in the U.S. offer direct access to its “common backbone” – key data routes that carry vast amounts of emails, internet chats, social media updates, and internet browsing sessions. These eight locations are among the most important in AT&T’s global network. They are also highly valued by the NSA, documents indicate.