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US telco sued over surveillance programme

Civil rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has sued AT&T, alleging that the telco has broken telecommunication privacy laws by collaborating with the US National Security Agency in a massive surveillance programme.01 Feb 2006

The NSA programme came to light in December, when the New York Times reported that shortly after 9/11, the President had authorised the agency to intercept telephone and internet communications inside the US without the authorisation of any court.

According to the EFF, it has since become clear that the NSA program has been intercepting and analysing the communications of millions of US citizens, with the help of the country's largest phone and internet companies, including AT&T.

This, says the EFF, breaches both the privacy of AT&T customers and existing communications privacy laws.

"The NSA programme is apparently the biggest fishing expedition ever devised, scanning millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls and emails for 'suspicious' patterns, and it's the collaboration of US telecom companies like AT&T that makes it possible," said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston.

In the lawsuit, filed yesterday, the EFF alleges that AT&T, in addition to allowing the NSA direct access to the phone and internet communications passing over its network, has given the government unfettered access to its over 300 terabyte "Daytona" database of caller information – one of the largest databases in the world.

According to EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl, "Congress has set up strong laws protecting the privacy of your communications, strictly limiting when telephone and internet companies can subject your phone calls to government scrutiny.”

"The companies that have betrayed their customers' trust by illegally handing the NSA direct access to their networks and databases must be brought to account. AT&T needs to put a sign on its door that reads, 'Come Back With a Warrant,'" he added.

The suit seeks class action status, an injunction against AT&T’s participation in the program and damages.

While the EFF suit is the first to target a company for its involvement in the programme, other rights groups have already filed suit against the US Administration.

The American Civil Liberties Union, together with a group of prominent journalists, scholars, attorneys, and other national non-profit organisations – all of whom frequently communicate by phone and email with people in the Middle East – filed their own action on 17th January.

The group believes that the programme violates Americans’ rights to free speech and privacy under the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution.

The group also charges that that the programme violates the Constitution because, in signing an order allowing the surveillance, President Bush exceeded his authority under separation of powers principles.

Congress has enacted two statutes, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Title III of the federal criminal code, which are “the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance … and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted,” says the ACLU.

While President Bush has defended his actions, explaining that he was authorised to grant such an order by both the Constitution and a Congressional measure that gave him powers to fight terrorism, the ACLU does not agree.

As ACLU Executive Director Anthony D Romero advised at the time of filing the suit, “President Bush may believe he can authorise spying on Americans without judicial or Congressional approval, but this program is illegal and we intend to put a stop to it”.

“The current surveillance of Americans is a chilling assertion of presidential power that has not been seen since the days of Richard Nixon,” he warned.

By coincidence, ABC News reported this week that President Bush's approval rating among the American public – with just 42% approving of his work – is the worst for a president entering his sixth year in office since Nixon was damaged by the Watergate scandal.