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Frequent NSA collaborator AT&T is backing Apple in its fight against the FBI

In this Oct. 21, 2014 photo, people pass an AT&T store in New York's Times Square. AT&T is being sued by the government over allegations it misled millions of smartphone customers who were promised unlimited data but had their Internet speeds cut by the company — slowing their ability to open web pages or watch streaming video. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
AP Photo/Richard Drew
Drawing a line.
By Alice Truong
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

AT&T filed an amicus brief today (March 3) backing Apple in its fight against the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The telecom provider joins a growing list of organizations, including Google, Facebook, Mozilla, Twitter, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Electronic Frontier Foundation, that have stood by Apple in its fight with the FBI. Apple has refused to comply with a Feb. 16 order from a federal judge to help the FBI break into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, California shooters.

The company says it would have to create a special version of its mobile operating system that would bypass a security feature that wipes the data off the device after too many unsuccessful unlocking attempts. Apple has called the order both unconstitutional and an overreach of the government.

Apple and the FBI were both questioned in a congressional hearing March 1, and outside parties have five days from the hearing to file amicus briefs in support of either side. A federal magistrate-judge in Riverside, California is scheduled to rule on the FBI-Apple dispute on March 22.

AT&T, the second largest US wireless carrier by subscribers, said in a statement that “we felt it important to add our voice to this conversation.” Though many tech companies have backed Apple citing consumer privacy, AT&T’s filing today contrasts to its stance on government spying. Documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that AT&T has showed an “extreme willingness to help” the US National Security Agency over the course of decades.

As detailed by the New York Times last year, AT&T gave the agency access to billions of emails sent over its network, provided technical assistance wiretapping its customers (including the United Nations), installed surveillance equipment at its hubs, and tested the NSA’s new technologies.

It’s not unusual for telecom companies to assist the government in surveillance, but AT&T was described as a “highly collaborative” partner, going beyond the scope of its rivals, according to NSA documents.

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