Before there was Edward Snowden, there was of course the notably less celebrated Mark Klein. As most of you probably recall, Klein, a 22-year AT&T employee, became a whistleblower after he highlighted (pdf) how AT&T was effectively using fiber splits to give the NSA duplicate access to every shred of data that touched AT&T’s network. Of course, once it was discovered that AT&T was breaking the law, the government decided to just change the law, ignore Klein’s testimony, and give all phone companies retroactive immunity. It really wasn’t until Snowden that the majority of the tech press took Klein’s warnings seriously.
AT&T’s been loyally “patriotic” ever since, often giving the government advice on how to skirt the law or at times even acting as intelligence analysts. Business repercussions for AT&T have been minimal at best; in fact, you’ll recall that Qwest (now CenturyLink) claimed repeatedly that government cooperation was rewarded with lucrative contracts, while refusal to participate in government programs was punished. In fact, the only snag AT&T’s seen in the years since was to have its European expansion plans thwarted, purportedly by regulators uncomfortable with the carrier’s cozy NSA ties (AT&T instead simply expanded into Mexico).
Fast forward a few years and The Hill is now claiming that AT&T’s relationship with the NSA could harm the company’s $48 billion attempt to acquire DirecTV. This claim is apparently based on the fact that a coalition of AT&T business partners, called the Minority Cellular Partners Coalition, is warning the FCC in a letter (pdf) that AT&T’s enthusiastic voluntary cooperation with the NSA shows the company’s total disregard for consumer privacy.
“(Despite immunity) the Commission is still obliged to execute and enforce the provisions of § 229 of the Act, see 47 U.S.C. § 151, and it is still empowered to conduct an investigation to insure that AT&T complies with the requirements of CALEA. See id. § 229(c). And the Commission is obliged to determine whether AT&T is qualified to obtain DIRECTV’s licenses in light of its egregious violations of CALEA. This is particularly true given AT&T’s continued and ongoing pattern of misconduct. Accordingly, the Commission should investigate AT&T’s complicity in the PSP to determine whether AT&T engaged in unlawful conduct that abridged the privacy interests of telecommunications consumers on a vast scale and, if so, whether AT&T is qualified to obtain DIRECTV’s licenses.”
Of course, that’s simply not happening. While the NSA cooperation can be used as a broader example of AT&T’s character (like the repeatedly nonsensical claims the company makes when it wants a merger approved, or how AT&T tries to charge its broadband customers extra for no deep packet inspection), it’s incredibly unlikely that the same government that granted AT&T’s immunity will turn around and sign off on using AT&T’s behavior to squash a merger. If the merger is blocked, it will be due to more practical considerations — like the fact that DirecTV is a direct competitor to AT&T and eliminating them would lessen competition in the pay TV space. When it comes to AT&T’s relationship with the NSA, it’s pretty clear by now that these particular chickens may never come home to roost.