In the post 9/11 world, wireless carriers find themselves uncomfortable partners in what privacy advocates view as an unholy alliance between the federal government and telecom industry in the war on terror. Critics see it as a war on American civil liberties.
It is an alliance telecom service providers did not seek out, but largely had forced on them as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. No matter. Privacy groups, consumers and some lawmakers consider wireless and wireline telecom operators as part of a cabal that-more than ever and significantly unchecked-listens to private phone conversations and peruses phone records, text messages and e-mails in the name of national security.
It is at once a legal quandary and public-relations nightmare for telecom companies, especially wireless carriers that aggressively publicize efforts to safeguard consumer privacy and applaud congressional action to punish unauthorized access to subscribers’ phone records. Telecom carriers want to be good corporate citizens by aiding government’s anti-terrorism campaign, giving the government priority access on wireless networks for emergencies and the ability to readily eavesdrop on subscribers so long as it’s legal.
But telecom carriers do not want to lose the trust of their customers. It has turned out to be a tough balancing act.
In most cases, the Bush administration has defended its dealings with telecom carriers as warranted and totally legal. But that changed with revelations by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine that law enforcement grossly, if not illegally, abused “national security letters”-emergency requests for phone records and other data not requiring court review-to examine confidential information about citizens not necessarily linked to terrorist activity.
Democrats and Republicans alike are outraged. The national security letters were written into the Patriot Act as a handy tool for conducting surveillance in emergency situations when there isn’t time to get court approval.
“We can strike a balance between giving law enforcement the effective tools they need to fight terrorism and protecting civil liberties. But it starts with having controls in place and having a process in place that gets followed and that gets used appropriately,” said Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) “Personnel at the FBI absolutely failed to do that job. When they fail to do that job, they undermine the public’s confidence in our law enforcement investigation capacity. I want the public to be confident and comfortable with the work that law enforcement is doing at every level. That is what our earlier improvements-oversight and judicial review-were designed to give us.”
Telcos singled out
Fine referenced three telephone companies in his probe, without identifying them. But the names of AT&T Inc., parent of the largest mobile-phone carrier, Verizon Communications Inc., parent of the No. 2 mobile-phone carrier, and MCI, the long-distance carrier owned by Verizon, subsequently surfaced as the companies that handed over phone records to the FBI via national security letter requests.
“The telephone companies knew what was going on here,” Fine told Senate Judiciary Committee members last Wednesday. Fine testified before the House Judiciary Committee the previous day.
After prodding from House telecom subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) at a March 14 oversight hearing, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin agreed to release to the panel a copy of recent letter on telecom consumer privacy to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The letter seeks guidance on Democratic congressional requests to have the FCC investigate claims of telecom carriers providing customer phone records to the National Security Agency in violation of federal telecom privacy laws. To date, Martin has balked at congressional calls to investigate.
“Specifically, in light of the state secrets assertions of the United States in civil litigation and the positions taken by the United States in state administrative proceedings, is it the view of the United States that the disclosure that would be entailed by an FCC investigation would pose an unnecessary risk of exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States?” asked Martin.
Markey said he could predict what the embattled Gonzales would answer.
“The Federal Communications Commission stood idly by while telecommunications companies illegally sold their customers’ private information to the government for profit,” said Caroline Frederickson, director of the Washington D.C., office of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The laws regarding the proper process are very clear, and the FBI and the telecommunications entered into a contract to circumvent the law. The FCC must investigate the role of the telecommunications giants in breaking the law. We urge Congress demand the FCC act to protect our privacy.”
RCR Wireless News previously reported T-Mobile USA Inc. and Verizon Wireless saying they did not participate in any NSA phone record collection program, while AT&T and Sprint Nextel Corp. have denied comment.
Meantime, the nation’s top business lobbying group urged a federal appeals court to dismiss a lawsuit against AT&T over the government’s anti-terrorism eavesdropping program.
“Government and businesses have long cooperated to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure, 85 percent of which is in private hands,” Robin Conrad, senior vice president of the public policy law firm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “Subjecting American businesses to lawsuits each time anyone disagrees with the government’s national security policies threatens to undermine that cooperation, thereby jeopardizing national security.”