The Central Intelligence Agency pays US telecommunications giant AT&T more than US$10 million a year to provide phone records with possible links to suspected terrorists, the New York Times reported on Thursday, citing government officials.
The arrangement is voluntary and there is no court order requiring the company to co-operate with the CIA, officials told the Times.
The programme differs from controversial data collection by the National Security Agency (NSA), which receives phone records or other “meta-data” from telecommunications companies through court orders.
The CIA passes on phone numbers of suspected militants abroad and AT&T then sifts through its database for records of phone calls that can identify foreigners with terror links, the newspaper reported.
Most of the logs handed over by AT&T are related to calls made outside the US, the report said.
For international calls that include one end in the United States, the company does not reveal the identity of the Americans and hides several digits of their phone numbers, which allows the CIA to comply with a ban on domestic spying, it said.
The CIA could choose to refer a hidden number to the FBI, which could then issue a subpoena demanding AT&T divulge the information, according to the report.
An AT&T spokesman did not confirm or deny the programme but said the firm acted in accordance with laws in the United States and in foreign countries.
“In all cases, whenever any governmental entity anywhere seeks information from us, we ensure that the request and our response are completely lawful and proper,” spokesman Mark Siegel told reporters.
But he added: “We do not comment on questions concerning national security”.
Without verifying the existence of the programme, the CIA said its intelligence gathering does not violate the privacy of Americans.
“The CIA protects the nation and upholds the privacy rights of Americans by ensuring that its intelligence collection activities are focused on acquiring foreign intelligence and counterintelligence in accordance with US laws,” said spokesman Todd Ebitz.
The CIA is usually associated with gathering intelligence through spies in the field while the NSA focuses on eavesdropping abroad and code-breaking.
But an unnamed intelligence official told the Times that the CIA sometimes needs to check phone records in “time-sensitive situations” and be able to act with speed and agility.
The report offered the first indication that the CIA had a role in electronic data collection as leaks from a former intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, have sparked a global firestorm around the NSA’s digital spying.
US internet communications firms have voiced complaints that they are legally required to co-operate with the NSA’s “data mining”.
Industry advocates have expressed concerns that NSA spying revelations could turn consumers in the US and abroad against the American technology companies.