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Report: Foreign owners blocked T-Mobile, Verizon from NSA snoops

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T-Mobile and Verizon were not issued court orders to hand over mobile data for their users because their part-ownership by non-US companies could have caused complications, according to an unnamed US official.

The government source told The Wall Street Journal that T-Mobile, which is 74 per cent owned by German communications company Deutsche Telekom, and Vodafone in the UK's 45 per cent stake in Verizon Wireless, may have offered a measure of protection from direct NSA snooping. But, the official said, the spooks still got 99 per cent of what they wanted anyway, because the mobile traffic was routed through other US-owned networks.

Leaks from the Booz Allen Hamilton whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that the NSA was using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to collect vast amounts of data from US telecos and internet firms. Under the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) orders, the companies are not allowed to discuss the demands – although support for that is cracking.

AT&T and Sprint are cooperating fully with handing over domestic and international traffic data to the NSA, the official said. Coincidentally, they are the only two networks that get contracts for government security work.

Such broad-scale data-slurping is technically legal under the Patriot Act, so long as the content of the call or data transmission isn't also being monitored. That's legal too, if FISC approves, and since the court approved all 1,856 requests last year and can also grant retroactive permission for wiretapping.

If correct, the news adds an interesting twist to the proposed $21.6bn merger of Sprint and the Japanese-owned conglomerate Softbank. The merger might mean Sprint too is going somewhat offline for the NSA, but the WSJ reports that this may not be the case, and hints why the US authorities are so happy with the deal.

Softbank is proposing to run Sprint as a separate US company, and will appoint a new chief security officer who happens to be the former head of the US Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, the WSJ reports. The combination suggests Sprint won't be giving the NSA much trouble, and in any case the firm's limited coverage means it has to piggyback on the snoopable AT&T and Verizon Business networks.

Not that the US public seems to be prepared to shift their mobile provider in light of the snooping scandal, anyway. Recent numbers from the Pew pollsters show that a small majority of US users are fine with their data being tapped to "fight terrorism," although a majority want their emails private. ®

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