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It’s a fairly open secret that the US government is watching our every digital move (a special hello to the agent who tracks me Googling “at what age do u feel like an adult” on a daily basis!!). But for West Siders, the hawk-eyed surveillance falls even closer to home — the National Security Agency (NSA) is said to be camping out right here on 10th Avenue at the AT&T Building.
Investigative publication The Intercept identified eight centers where an AT&T telecom facility was purported to be using their network equipment to help the NSA monitor billions of phone calls, emails, texts, and browsing sessions across the US. In addition to two facilities in New York (at AT&T’s 811 10th Avenue (corner of W53rd Street) and the supposed NSA comms center at 33 Thomas Street), Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle and Washington DC were also identified as hosting NSA surveillance hubs backed by the telecom company.
Hell’s Kitchen’s own personal espionage center was built in 1964 as an AT&T Switching Center (then known as New York Telecom Company) — and New York’s first telecom fortress — by architecture firm Kahn and Jacobs. The 21-story building, which is actually the height of a 40-story structure due to larger-than-average floors, was designed to withstand nuclear damage — it contains no windows and is significantly set back from the street, though that didn’t stop a convertible from crashing into the building early last year.
Former AT&T engineer Thomas Saunders told The Intercept that by the 1970s the building was the largest communications hub in the country (the facility was upgraded in 2000 to become an internet data center) and due to its infrastructure, is considered to be one of the strongest buildings in the city. Saunders said that had former President George W Bush been in Manhattan on the day of the 9/11 attacks, he would have been taken to the windowless fortress for protection.
Bush himself was one of the arbiters of the NSA’s notorious surveillance programs, after he ordered the agency to begin monitoring Americans’ international phone calls, emails, texts, and online chats in the aftermath of 9/11. “Warrantless Wiretapping”, as it was known, was processed through the 10th Avenue facility (as well as telecom centers throughout the country) without notice until The New York Times exposed the process in 2005 in a watershed exposé.
Despite the fact that White House asked the Times not to publish their findings, the piece ran and created an uproar among critics like the American Civil Liberties Union and NYCLU who deemed the practice unconstitutional without proper warrants. Congress eventually made a case for warrantless wiretapping in 2008 and according to The Intercept, “controversially authorized elements of the warrantless wiretapping program by enacting Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act, or FISA.”
Today, the Midtown West building is used to monitor emails, online chats, and browsing data (they know you’ve been holding those Gucci shoes in your Saks cart for two years, Maude). Its sister facility — a windowless former AT&T building in TriBeCa that is said to house the NSA surveillance hub TITANPOINTE — is used to tap into phone calls.
If you have taken this opportunity to shout “I’m not under surveillance, I have Verizon Wireless!” we have some bad news for you — AT&T’s long standing partnership with the NSA doesn’t preclude other users from having their activity monitored. Partly chosen by the NSA for their “extreme willingness to help”, according to The Intercept, AT&T is the service of choice for the government agency due to the high volume of data it carries for other service providers. Known as “backbone” and “peering” facilities, when a specific area of the country is overloaded with data traffic, operators with large capacity such as AT&T are allowed to sell or exchange bandwidth, thereby carrying data from users across networks.
Alarmed?! So is Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, who told The Intercept: “It’s eye-opening and ominous the extent to which this is happening right here on American soil. 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.”
Several former AT&T employees confirmed to The Intercept that the 10th Avenue building was indeed being used for surveillance purposes, with some recalling that they needed government security clearance and to pass a polygraph test in order to work for the telecom company.
The NSA, however, was slightly less forthcoming. Spokesperson Christopher Augustine said in a statement to The Intercept that the agency could “neither confirm nor deny its role in alleged classified intelligence activities.” Augustine additionally declined to confirm a partnership with the AT&T facilities, but added that the NSA “conducts its foreign signals intelligence mission under the legal authorities established by Congress and is bound by both policy and law to protect US persons’ privacy and civil liberties.”
If you’re still searching for answers, you can always Google it repeatedly and see if an NSA agent reaches out! If you’ll excuse us, we need to clear our cookies…