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Verizon Says It Turned Over Data Without Court Orders
Yesterday's 13-page Verizon letter indicated that the requests went further than previously known. Verizon said it had received FBI administrative subpoenas, called national security letters, requesting data that would "identify a calling circle" for subscribers' telephone numbers, including people contacted by the people contacted by the subscriber. Verizon said it does not keep such information.
"The privacy concerns are exponential each generation you go away from the suspect's number," said Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney with the EFF. "This shows that further investigation by Congress and the inspector general is critical."
Earlier this year, the Justice Department's inspector general found that the FBI may have improperly obtained phone, bank and other records of thousands of people inside the United States since 2003 by using national security letters and exigent letters, or emergency demands for records.
Michael Kortan, an FBI spokesman, said the bureau has suspended use of community-of-interest data "while an appropriate oversight and approval policy" is developed. He added that the inspector general is reviewing the use of those data.
Both Verizon and AT&T suggested in their letters that they already enjoy legal immunity under existing laws. But AT&T said that when the lawsuits involve allegations of highly classified activity, the company cannot prove its immunity claims.
Carriers are facing a raft of lawsuits from individuals and privacy advocates, such as the EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union, for allegedly violating Americans' privacy by aiding the NSA's warrantless surveillance program.
The federal government has intervened, arguing that to continue the case would divulge "state secrets," jeopardizing national security.
The Senate Intelligence Committee could draft a bill this week that includes relief for the carriers. The administration is seeking blanket immunity, which would extend to anyone sued for assisting the government -- not just telecom carriers -- in its post-Sept. 11 surveillance programs.
"It's rare in these situations where there's agreement between the plaintiffs and the defendants -- that there are plenty of protections for telecommunications providers in the existing laws," said the EFF's Opsahl, adding that no new immunity is necessary. "It appears that we both agree that the court should be able to look at the full situation, despite the state-secrets privilege."
In its letter, Verizon said that on occasion, it receives requests without correct authorizations. For instance, it said, it once received a request for stored voice mail without a warrant. The company does not respond until proper authorization is received, it said.
AT&T and Verizon both argued that the onus should not be on the companies to determine whether the government has lawfully requested customer records. To do so in emergency cases would "slow lawful efforts to protect the public," wrote Randal S. Milch, senior vice president of legal and external affairs for Verizon Business, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications.
"Public officials, not private businessmen, must ultimately be responsible for whether the legal judgments underlying authorized surveillance activities turn out to be right or wrong -- legally or politically," wrote Wayne Watts, AT&T's senior executive vice president and general counsel. "Telecommunications carriers have a part to play in guarding against official abuses, but it is necessarily a modest one."