Partners Unfazed By AT&T's Intimate Relationship With NSA

Telecommunications giant AT&T may have a particularly close relationship with the U.S. National Security Agency, but solution providers said they don't believe that matters of national security will have any effect on their businesses.

Thanks to Edward Snowden, it's no secret that some carriers have granted the government agency access to Internet communications and countless phone records over the years. But this week, AT&T was described by The New York Times as having a "highly collaborative" partnership with the NSA -- possibly more cozy than its competitors in the carrier and Internet service provider (ISP) space.

According to recently disclosed NSA documents, the report said, AT&T has cooperated with the agency by handing over billions of emails and permitted the wiretapping of Internet communications that were transmitted over the AT&T network between 2003 and 2013.

[Related: Solution Providers Recommend Telco Diversity To Guard Against Outages]

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Atrion Networking, a Warwick, R.I.-based IT solution provider and AT&T partner, views the news in a favorable light.

"I don't look at it negatively -- I think it's even positive in some ways that carriers are being relied on by the government," said Darryl Senese, vice president of carrier services for Atrion Networking. "If the government relies on them, shouldn't your business feel comfortable with their solutions and services they provide?"

Senese said he is more likely to recommend AT&T's services because the news demonstrates how reliable the carrier's services are. Atrion currently has eight to 10 salespeople selling carrier services from the likes of Verizon and Comcast, in addition to those of AT&T, and the question about telco cooperation with the NSA has not come up from customers, Senese said. "We are getting more questions around data breaches, like when retailers are hacked," he said.

Alliant Technologies, a Boston-based AT&T partner, doesn't resell any other carrier offerings, but is in agreement with Atrion Networking that the news won't change how it goes to market with AT&T solutions, said Patrick Lee, business development executive for Alliant Technologies.

"This news doesn't affect the packaging or positioning of AT&T's products and services for our clients," Lee said in an email to CRN.

Two AT&T solution provider partners who elected not to be named also noted that the news isn't going to encourage changes to their services portfolio or marketing strategies for products that include AT&T services.

However, the news does confirm some speculation that's been rampant in the industry for some time now, according to solution providers. But AT&T isn't the only carrier that has been named. Verizon, as well as the former MCI -- bought by Verizon in 2006 -- have also been identified as carriers that have worked with the NSA.

To some extent, the issue is unavoidable, thanks to "peering," an arrangement in which a carrier such as AT&T transmits Internet traffic for other Internet service providers and telecommunications companies. This often means that communications from other carriers' customers could end up on AT&T's -- or another carrier's network -- quite easily, one solution provider noted.

According to The New York Times, retired AT&T technician Mark Klein claimed that the carrier gave the NSA access to other telcos' Internet traffic that landed on the AT&T network. But many consumers and businesses alike already assume their communications might not be entirely private.

"Most people just inherently feel like Big Brother is watching, so it's somewhat like white noise at this point," the solution provider said.

"As a business person and as a consumer, I think the world has come to expect telcos to interact with the government," Atrion's Senese said. "I would expect that very large telecommunications will do what the government needs them to do and help in any way, so we can live our lives the way we want to live."

Not all are unperturbed by the news, however. According to one master agent who requested anonymity, customers interested in secure cloud solutions will be questioning whether AT&T's services are a good fit for them.

"We anticipate a lot of change within our request for quotes on AT&T, and even resellers of them," the agent said. "We will be asking our solution providers to be proactive about it."

While not every end customer will be impacted, those in the enterprise and government sectors will be concerned.

"In the cloud era, customers are relying and putting trust in carriers more than ever before," the master agent said. "Solution providers will be forced to consider both how they position AT&T security products and services, as well as having to disclose the concern over this news with clients."