Verizon to the government: “Our customer information…let us show you it.”

In response to an inquiry launched by House Democrats as to the role the major telecoms played in abetting the NSA surveillance program, Verizon came out yesterday and admitted that it had turned over customer data to federal authorities 720 times between 2005 and 2007–or once a day, every day, for the last two years:

The company said it does not determine the requests’ legality or necessity because to do so would slow efforts to save lives in criminal investigations… Verizon also disclosed that the FBI, using administrative subpoenas, sought information identifying not just a person making a call, but all the people that customer called, as well as the people those people called. Verizon does not keep data on this “two-generation community of interest” for customers, but the request highlights the broad reach of the government’s quest for data.

This is astonishing on two levels…first, that Verizon would be so cavalier with the idea that you can’t save lives without breaking the law, and that the government’s demands for data were so far-reaching that even Verizon couldn’t keep up.

The Democrats’ response to the telecoms is here. Reading through the Verizon and AT&T responses is a fascinating exercise in legalistic doublespeak. At every turn, the companies’ counsels insist they can share no facts or details about the programs for fear of violating national security…but if they did, y’know, spy on people illegally, it’s okay because they have stringent measures in place to protect our privacy, and we should just trust them, because they’re saving lives. I also recommend you read the response from EFF counsel Cindy Cohn, who eloquently skewers the idea that anything less than a direct, immediate threat to someone’s life is worthy of bypassing the FISA system–which already grants emergency wiretaps for up to 72 hours before requiring a warrant, mind you.

It’s also worth noting (as Spencer Ackerman points out here) that Verizon’s disclosures only go as far as its relationship to the FBI, not the NSA. So in other words, we know that Verizon may have been feeding customer information to multiple government agencies, without warrants, and we are still in the dark as to the details. Feeling safer yet?

Even if we take on face value the principle that we can trust both the government and these corporations to do right by our information and our rights, the fact is that the Bush regime, in particular, is so utterly crippled by corruption and incompetence that these programs can only mean harm in their hands. Consider the fact that it took the NSA and DOJ a combined ten hours to authorize one wiretap warrant (one of the wiretaps, in fact, being cynically used to justify changing the FISA law). Why? Because now-former AG Abu Gonzo was in Texas at a conference, and all of his deputies had either left the building, resigned due to scandal, or were not authorized to sign off on the warrant. The DOJ had not bothered to update its own internal regs to give the acting officers the power to authorize these supposedly essential techniques to preserve our national security. Your tax dollars at work.

It flabbergasts me to think that the Senate may actively be considering granting retroactive immunity from liability to these companies, for performing actions that were flagrantly illegal, even in the face of massive, multipartisan opposition from Americans across the board. I have hope, based on this interview with the Judiciary’s top dogs Leahy and Specter, that they won’t grant a blank check as part of the amended FISA legislation, but we’ve been let down before. It’s our responsibility to keep the pressure up and let Congress know that the rule of law exists for a reason–that even as we may need quick action to save lives, we should not do so at the cost of the very principles that make our society great.

3 replies »

  1. Yeah, this is amazing. However, what we’re hearing may be a good thing. For one thing, while there’s little defending the telcos that played ball, the bigger issue has to be the government agencies driving the domestic spying programs. These revelations seem likely to cast a lot of light on those folks, and that’s a very good thing.

    Second, that light will hopefully lead to some policy revisions that will make future collaborationism by corps like Verizon less likely.

    Assuming there’s a party in Washington that opposes Big Brotherism….