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Mysterious AT&T Building In East Dallas May Be Collecting Data For The NSA, Reporters Say

Google Maps screenshot
A report in the Intercept identifies this building in Old East Dallas as a spy hub for the NSA.

There's a big, chunky building with tiny, obscured windows along Bryan Street in Old East Dallas that is a bit of a mystery. A pair of reporters think they've unraveled some of that mystery.

One of them, Ryan Gallagher, talked with KERA for this week's Friday Conversation. The story he co-wrote for the Intercept argues that the AT&T building is a spy hub for the National Security Agency.

Interview Highlights:

On the role these AT&T buildings are supposed to play:

"The important thing about these buildings is that they're internet hubs that are used by AT&T to process internet data — not just within the U.S. but internationally as well. They're basically funneling huge amounts of internet traffic every day, in and out of each of these eight buildings, which are positioned all across the United States."

On the NSA’s role:

"Going back more than a decade now, the NSA was interested in trying to tap into the internet data that is flowing through these buildings on a daily basis. And they're using equipment that is fitted within these buildings that basically filters out certain types of the traffic that they're interested in to gather intelligence on people and groups. Most of it seems to have started after 9/11; they really changed what they were doing after that happened."

On what the NSA can and can't do:

"Legally speaking, NSA is not allowed to just solely domestic communication. If you in Dallas were speaking to a friend in California, legally speaking, if NSA wanted to monitor that they would have to get an individualized search warrant to do that. But there's kind of a gray area when it comes to your communication in Dallas or California with somebody who is in another part of the world, because NSA has very broad latitude to intercept and eavesdrop on international communications, even if one side of them is in the United States. And so this is what is a really interesting part of what these buildings are doing because they are tapping into that kind of communication — international communication. We know for sure that a large volume of those include Americans' information." 

On how the reporters obtained this information:

"We started this project at the end of 2016, where we looked at a building in New York City. That was based in part on the documents that were leaked by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor in 2013. But we couldn't just do it based on those documents. there wasn't enough information. So we used open-source information from AT&T maps that we were able to find. We also managed to get multiple sources who themselves had some knowledge of how the networks were working, and some of them have said in the past that they were aware of what was going on with this kind of spy equipment being fitted within their networks. So, we just kind of pieced together all these different parts of the puzzle." 

On AT&T's response:

"They don't say much. They have a general statement that they'll put out where they say that they do what they're legally obliged to do. That's effectively all they'll say about it. It's not a topic they want to talk about, and it's the same with the NSA. They want to keep their cards close to their chest on this kind of stuff." 

On what these buildings are like inside:

"To the untrained eye, you wouldn't really see all that much. It's not like this big sign that says, 'NSA spy equipment,' or anything like that. It's just going to be racks of servers, cables and flashing lights. Because nowadays, the equipment is so much smaller, we don't think it necessarily takes up a huge amount of space within the building. They have what they call 'splitter cables,' which basically, the NSA makes a copy of the data as it's coming through. One part of the copy ends up in the NSA's databases and the other part just goes on its way as if it were untouched. When you get into the technical part of it, it's really quite interesting if you're into that sort of geekery."

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Gus Contreras is a digital producer and reporter at KERA News. Gus produces the local All Things Considered segment and reports on a variety of topics from, sports to immigration. He was an intern and production assistant for All Things Considered in Washington D.C.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.