The U.S. government’s efforts to conduct surveillance and gather data on the nation’s citizens has been aided by huge U.S. companies, specifically AT&T, which are privy to the telephone calls and e-mails of millions of Americans, according to a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation this week.
Following last month’s lawsuit against the White House administration and federal government filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups, the EFF is now suing AT&T, claiming the company made possible “the biggest fishing expedition ever devised,” according to EFF staff attorney Kevin Bankston.
In the federal suit filed in San Francisco Tuesday, the EFF alleges AT&T gave the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) direct access to the company’s “vast databases of communications records, including information about whom their customers have phoned or e-mailed with in the past.”
While there is an acknowledgment that Internet service providers and telecom carriers must comply with law enforcement investigations, the surveillance in question was both “warrantless and wholesale,” Bankston told TechNewsWorld.
“The key distinguishing factor between this and what has happened in the past is, it had always been retail surveillance — the government targeted specific people and the telecom companies received warrants and allowed it,” he said. “What we’re alleging here is wholesale data surveillance. AT&T is just handing to the government much or all of the communications going over its networks.”
Contrasting the EFF suit to last month’s complaint filed by the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights and others, Bankston said holding corporations accountable is as important as holding the government accountable.
“We wanted to open another front in this battle against massive surveillance,” he said.
Spied by Giants
The U.S. government is widely believed to have eavesdropped on electronic communications in the interest of national security for decades. However, historically such practices have been limited to foreign communications. The latest alleged spying activities have occurred widely among domestic communications for the first time, according to Bankston.
“The same type of massive collection and analysis of communications the NSA did outside the U.S. for decades is now in the U.S.,” he said.
Bankston said the EFF’s suit targets AT&T specifically because the company us the largest telecom firm in the world and is known to have been cooperative with the government in granting access to data. However, he noted, the corporate giant is not alone in handing over too much information to government agencies.
“This is something several of the largest telecom companies in the country are doing,” he said, adding he is hopeful the lawsuit will impact other firms’ actions.
AT&T spokesperson Michael Balmoris told TechNewsWorld the company “cannot discuss matters of national security,” adding, “Our policy is not to discuss pending litigation.”
Fine Line of Compliance
Telecom and Internet companies are among those that must safeguard customer data from theft as well as from privacy threats such as the government snooping alleged by the EFF. At the same time, companies — required to build surveillance capabilities into their networks under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) — must comply with warranted, government demands that stem from investigations into child pornography, terrorism, and other alleged criminal behavior.
The issue is becoming more and more prominent as more is disclosed about the most recent domestic surveillance, and as authorities request more and more from carriers and other technology companies.
Google, for instance, has been prominently featured as a resistor of government requests for customer data, declining to disclose search queries from its users for fear it may jeopardize their privacy.
The EFF has praised Google’s resistance, but also highlighted the logging of searches that are personally identifiable via cookies, IP addresses and Google account information. The group has urged Google to stop collecting and storing such data.