AT&T has been helping the government mine personal information about Americans through wire taps and secret surveillance. Now the US government is trying to quash a lawsuit against the telecoms giant. Meanwhile it emerged this week that for the past five years the Bush administration has been tracking nearly every phone call in the United States!
Photo of Pottery Barn phones, Paris, 2006.
In yet another deliberate assault on civil liberties, the United States government has moved to suppress evidence collected in the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) lawsuit against telecommunications giant AT&T Corp.
On January 31, 2006 the EFF filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T, accusing the company of violating the law, as well as customer privacy in collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) in its program to wire tap and data-mine Americans' communications. The U.S. government filed a "Statement of Interest" in the lawsuit against AT&T, announcing the government's intent to "assert the military and state secrets privilege" and "intervene to seek dismissal" of the case.
EFF's evidence regarding AT&T's widespread surveillance of its networks, currently under seal, includes a declaration by Mark Klein, a retired AT&T telecommunications technician, along with internal AT&T documents. This evidence is further supported by J. Scott Marcus, who worked from 2001-2005 as senior advisor for Internet Technology at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
On March 31 and April 5, 2006, EFF filed court papers asking that AT&T be ordered to immediately cease illegally disclosing customers' communications to the U.S. government. Due to the controversial nature of evidence and rules of the court, EFF filed the majority of these papers temporarily "under seal." EFF asked the court to unseal the records for public access "as soon as possible." Most evidence remains under seal, while AT&T lawyers argue release of the documents would expose trade secrets. The issue will be the focus of a hearing on May 17th.
In December 2005, press reports revealed the government has been conducting an electronic surveillance program without warrants or safeguards established by Congress. This surveillance program, authorized by the President as early as 2001 intercepts and analyzes communications of millions of Americans.
The NSA uses computers to "data-mine" contents of Internet and telephone communications, trolling for certain names, numbers and words. Data indicating who is calling and emailing whom is also collected to identify persons who may be "linked" to "suspicious activities," suspected terrorists or other investigatory targets, whether directly or indirectly, according to the EFF.
The lawsuit alleges that AT&T has provided the government unrestricted access to caller information in one of the world's largest databases. By opening its network and databases to NSA surveillance, EFF alleges AT&T has violated consumer privacy and broken communications privacy laws.
The lawsuit further alleges that AT&T continues to assist the government in its secret surveillance of millions of Americans.On behalf of a nationwide class of AT&T customers, EFF is suing to stop this "illegal conduct" and hold AT&T responsible for "its illegal collaboration in the government's domestic spying program, which has violated the law and damaged the fundamental freedoms of the American public," the lawsuit says.
AT&T Corp. was recently acquired by the new AT&T, Inc., formerly known as SBC Communications. AT&T maintains domestic telecommunications facilities over which millions of telephone and Internet communications pass every day. It also manages some of the largest databases in the world, containing records of most or all communications made through its myriad telecommunications services.
It seems AT&T has forgotten its woes encountered many years ago when forced to break its market monopoly into a series of "baby bells." Maybe the costs of fighting lawsuits while continuing to collaborate with the government is the reason AT&T wants people to start paying for Internet communications. In recent interviews with Business Week and other media, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre has said the Internet "can't be free." He said AT&T should be paid for use of its "pipes" to send communications. AT&T has lobbied some members of Congress to abandon a Net Neutrality bill. The bill would insure Internet access remains free and fair to all, not just to those willing to pay higher fees to Internet providers.
Meanwhile, USA Today revealed this week that the Bush administration has been tracking nearly every phone call in the country over the past five years. The USA Today report about the government's secret database of phone calls has prompted Democratic and Republican members of Congress to demand answers from the White House, while at least one Senate committee chairman called for public hearings.
In a press conference, President Bush declined to confirm the massive tracking program, but insisted he was protecting Americans' privacy. "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," Bush said. "The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. ... The privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities," the President said. Unsurprisingly, he declined to answer questions from reporters.
Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would subpoena the phone companies to appear before his committee. "We're really flying blind on the subject and that's not a good way to approach the Fourth Amendment and the constitutional issues involving privacy," Specter told reporters. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California warned of a "major constitutional confrontation" brewing over American civil liberties.
It has emerged that AT&T, Verizon, with seven million landline users in New York State alone and BellSouth Corporation all cooperated with the government's secret spying activities. They are the nation's biggest telecommunications companies, providing local and wireless phone service to more than 200 million customers. But the heroic Qwest, with 14 million customers in 14 mostly Western states, refused to assist the NSA. Qwest, which previously has undergone financial woes, has chosen to honour principle over commerce.