Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Idiot Phone Companies

Last week, USA Today reported that AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon had given the National Security Agency (NSA) access to customer records in order that the NSA be able to determine "calling patterns." On Monday, BellSouth denied it cooperated with the NSA, and yesterday, Verizon claimed Tuesday it did not give the NSA customer records. Interestingly, the company declined to comment on whether the agency had access to its records, after reports that it shared data for an NSA call-tracking program.

In a statement, Verizon declared: "One of the most glaring and repeated falsehoods in the media reporting is the assertion that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Verizon was approached by NSA and entered into an arrangement to provide the NSA with data from its customers' domestic calls."

"Contrary to the media reports, Verizon was not asked by NSA to provide, nor did Verizon provide, customer phone records from any of these businesses (wireline telephone, wireless and directory publishing), or any call data from those records."

In an intriguing development, however, Verizon did not exclude MCI as a source of customer records. MCI is Verizon's primary long distance carrier. In addition, asked if the NSA had access to Verizon or MCI call records even if they were not handed over to the agency, spokesman Bob Varettoni declined to comment beyond the company's statement.

One additional line in the statement included: "As the President has made clear, the NSA program he acknowledged authorizing against al-Qaeda is highly classified. Verizon cannot and will not comment on the program. Verizon cannot and will not confirm or deny whether it has any relationship to it."

AT&T has said it will not comment on matters of national security, and has declined to comment on whether it has a relationship with the NSA. AT&T further said it had not given customer information to law enforcement authorities or government agencies without legal authorization. Now, given that Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez has declared the previous domestic spying operation to be perfectly legal, that doesn't mean AT&T didn't cooperate.

Verizon, BellSouth and AT&T have been sued for $200 billion for violating customer privacy rights.

The statements made by the phone companies are reminiscent of the Nixon Administration, whose own statements often fell into the categories of "non-denial denials" or ones containing "plausible deniability." The Nixon Administration engaged in numerous incidences of illegal surveillance of members of its "enemies list." Given the scope of the domestic surveillance occurring today, the Nixon Years may look like the Good Old Days.

It is interesting to note that Qwest Communications refused a government request for access to customer records, according to the company's former chief executive, Joseph Nacchio. That refusal just might give Qwest what is known in advertising as a Unique Selling Proposition: "Qwest: Whatever you say here, stays here."


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