I’m an ex-employee of Verizon Communications.
The company made its way to my attention during a recent article on Ars Technic, which covered a recent court case in which the court was asked to decide whether Verizon had been “intimately involved” in the collection of customer data by the National Security Agency (NSA).
Verizon, it turned out, was not, and in fact had been part of a settlement that was part of an effort to get Verizon to provide the court with access to its data.
While I can’t speak for Verizon or any of the other tech companies, I’m not one to say that my company isn’t an active participant in the NSA’s mass surveillance.
In that case, Verizon’s data collection, it turns out, had been carried out without any oversight.
Verizon’s relationship with the NSA was a controversial one.
As Ars noted at the time, the company was the recipient of some of the most secret intelligence-gathering efforts in US history: in 2015, Verizon provided the NSA with a massive amount of its “metadata”—the content of all its communications—which included the names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses of everyone in the country.
The NSA used this data to monitor every aspect of everyone’s life from online browsing to their cell phone usage.
(As of 2014, the agency had also collected the metadata of more than 1 billion Verizon customers.)
As Ars noted, Verizon had already made an effort in 2015 to stop the collection.
In an effort called “Operation Safe Passage,” it hired an outside firm to help it “decrypt and block NSA metadata requests” on behalf of customers.
In a statement to Ars, Verizon said it had complied with the agreement, and had begun “a program to help our customers comply with requests for their data.”
Verity, however, did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
The company had a lot of problems with this effort, and it ultimately decided to turn over the metadata and encryption keys to the NSA, according to a document that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) obtained.
That deal was not a secret.
As I explained in an article for Ars last year, Verizon was part a secret NSA program known as “Fusion Center,” which was run by NSA director Michael Hayden and operated as an extension of the NSA in some way.
Its job was to provide access to the entire US population to the agency’s vast intelligence infrastructure.
This included collecting all metadata, but only to the extent the government thought it was necessary to do so.
And while the Finca Center did, in fact, collect some metadata on millions of Verizon customers, the NSA did not, as I noted in an earlier article, “get to know or talk to” those people.
This arrangement was not without its problems.
In 2012, the ACLU reported that Verizon had created a system that allowed it to tap directly into the network of the company’s servers, which would then “seal off” all communications that did not fall under its surveillance orders.
At the time of my article, the FNC also allowed Verizon to “monitor” its customers’ online activities for the NSA.
A Verizon spokesperson told Ars that, while the company has made “many efforts to comply with all lawful requests for data,” it has “not been able to comply fully in all instances.”
At some point, Verizon became aware that the company could not “fully comply” with the FINCA Center’s program, and that it needed to “significantly alter its practices to make it easier to comply” in order to get “access to customers’ information,” according to the company.
Verizon was told that it could only “sign” off on the changes to its procedures if the NSA told it that it was doing so.
The following year, it became clear that Verizon was not being given access to all of its customer data.
The next year, a judge issued a warrant that allowed Verizon and the NSA to search for all the records in the Fancys database, which had been made public.
To be clear, the documents Ars obtained show that Verizon and NSA did share data in this way, though the company declined to make any specific claims about the extent of that sharing.
But in a statement provided to Ars in 2016, Verizon admitted that it “did share information in this manner” with NSA: Verizon’s compliance efforts “were more than just compliance efforts.
They were also about ensuring that our customers and the public at large are fully informed of the extent to which we participate in the National Intelligence Community’s efforts to gather and analyze data for the United States government.”
When Ars asked Verizon about the contents of the documents obtained by EFF, it said that it had “nothing further to share” about the records obtained by the EFF.