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May 16, 2006

BellSouth and AT&T Added to NSA Class Action Suit

Domestic spying concerns are making a lot of people uneasy, except for the 63% or so who say it is a legitimate tool to fight terrorism.  That figure came from an ABC poll conducted last week after USA Today broke the story that several telephone companies provided the National Security Agency with subscriber phone records.  The disclosure brought not just criticism but a class action lawsuit against Verizon, who has denied the claims.  CNN is now reporting that BellSouth and AT&T (the former SBC) have been added as defendants.  According to the story, only AT&T has not denied the claims.  The Washington Post has an additional report on the suit.

The suit is based on a federal law that prohibits the disclosure of phone records with a minimum penalty of $1,000 per disclosure.  The reports indicate that the disclosures were in the billions, which means a huge payoff if this suit ever goes through.  The government is attacking a similar suit filed in San Francisco by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against AT&T with arguments that customers can't prove their phones were tapped and that the case endangers national security.  According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, a former AT&T employee described equipment attached to circuits in the SF office that allowed the agency to conduct "vacuum cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the Internet."  I assume that the data swept up would include this post, since it's initiated through an AT&T DSL account.  Documents were also filed in the suit which added detail to the claim.  AT&T is seeking the return of the documents as trade secrets. 

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has called for an investigation as to whether phone companies have violated federal law by providing records to the NSA.  As one of the Democrats on the commission, that request will probably go nowhere.

Obviously this has generated a lot of controversy.  The disclosure comes at the time when General Michael Hayden has been nominated to head the CIA.  Some say the the disclosure was timed to damage the good General's chances of heading the agency.  That may or may not be, but the there is no doubt that the safety vs. privacy arguments would rage no matter the timing of this bombshell disclosure.  One would think that there was a way to conduct counter-terrorism without sucking in every call and Internet click by Americans and others.  Some claim that they don't mind because they have nothing to hide.  They should not forget that it's the government that decides what's worth hiding and not them.  Private acts are worth their privacy, even if they are not illegal.

May 16, 2006 | Permalink


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