A new Business Week article may help explain how AT&T and BellSouth can say they didn't help the NSA, despite the spy agency having millions of their records showing the call details of Americans using their networks.
The magazine reveals a hidden corner of the telecommunications world: a small group of companies who specialize in granting the government access to telecommunications records, conversations and real-time data on behalf of the telecom giants.
That's right: the government now makes so many requests for wiretaps, phone records and call information that an industry has sprung up to handle the load.
Rather than respond themselves to requests from the FBI and others, a telco can sign up with one of these companies, give them access to their call records and equipment, and let that third party do all the hard work.
What are the benefits? One company, NeuStar, doesn't beat around the bush. In a pitch to service providers, it bills itself as a "scapegoat" for hire, presumably allowing phone companies to deny responsibility for or involvement in turning over their records to the government.
NeuStar actually has an advantage over its competitors: it's not just an FBI-friendly third party, it's a major routing company. According to their web site, "Nearly every telephone call placed is routed using NeuStar's system, and every telecommunications service provider is one of NeuStar's customers."
Yep, their customers include AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth - the mighty trio featured in USA Today's story on the NSA's vast calls database last week.
Now, NeuStar's CEO has repeatedly denied that his company had anything to do with the NSA program. That may be so. But if NeuStar isn't the fabled third party to hand over the telcos' data to the NSA, then it seems that there are plenty of other suspects.