Podcast: When U.S. Companies Help the NSA

A year and a half into the release of classified documents by Edward Snowden, the existence of far-reaching National Security Agency surveillance is common if controversial knowledge.

But until The Intercept published new documents this month, the role of American companies in that surveillance was less than clear, ProPublica’s Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson tell Editor-in-Chief Steve Engelberg in this week’s podcast.

The new documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and unnamed U.S. companies and reveal that the NSA has “under cover” spies working at or with some of them. And indeed, it would be difficult for the NSA to do its work without their help, Larson says.

“The important thing about today’s communications infrastructure is that it doesn’t respect country borders,” he says, “You’re no longer looking at Soviet signals in Russia – you’re trying to cast a wide net and collect information that’s traveling maybe through the United States while it goes from, say, London to China.”

The cooperating companies in question, though unnamed in the new documents, are almost certainly telecommunications companies that lay the fiber for data communications, Angwin says, as they “are really the first point of attack for anyone who’s trying to do surveillance, whether they’re a criminal, or the NSA.”

Aside from privacy concerns, Angwin also notes there’s the simple question of cost – surveillance has quadrupled to $80 billion since 9/11 – vs. benefit. “We’re, you know, a year and a half into the Snowden leaks,” she says, “and the NSA has yet to provide clear evidence that any of the surveillance has worked to prevent an attack, right?”

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